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Pirates poised for second-half run to playoffs

Improved bullpen, play within NL Central are keys to second straight postseason

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PITTSBURGH -- Teams' records and standings sometimes are misleading, an incorrect reflection of performance. Not so with the Pirates; for them to be circling .500 and in fourth place in the National League Central couldn't be more befitting.

The Bucs are, as general manager Neal Huntington's frequently observes, a team "without any glaring weaknesses." They are also a team without any glaring strengths. Various facets -- the rotation, the bullpen, lineup power -- have taken turns in the lead to keep the club in contention. It certainly has not been like 2013, when the pitchers did all the heavy lifting.

That also made the first half, and the opportunities of the second half, encouraging. Scanning all of his team's numbers -- some of them, like the 22-30 record within the division, quite discouraging -- no wonder manager Clint Hurdle's eyes light up when he sees only a "3 1/2" in the games-behind column.

Five key developments so far

1. Josh Harrison emerges from shadows
Not so much the production -- although there was plenty of that -- as the energy. The Pirates were buried when he became "must-play-J-Hay" on May 18, and they surged back into contention with his versatile All-Star boost.

2. Next man-up in the rotation
As cogs in the original starting rotation fell by the wayside, Hurdle kept calling out, "Next!" And Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton and Vance Worley responded. They have seven wins; charter starters Francisco Liriano and (released) Wandy Rodriguez have one.

First-half awards
MVP: Josh Harrison
If the "V" is for versatile, no debate; but even in value, no one meant more to the Pirates' first-half surge.
Top starter: Charlie Morton
Crazy, for a guy with a 5-9 record? Not if you break it down -- six ultra-quality starts of seven-plus innings with no more than two earned runs allowed.
Top rookie: Gregory Polanco
He is the only rookie, but it's not only by default; a .300 hitter through his first month while producing 31 runs in his first 27 games.
Top reliever: Tony Watson
Never mind the sub-1.00 ERA -- Watson didn't even allow a hit in 25 of his first 43 appearances.

3. The arrival
On June 10, Gregory Polanco finally checked in, answering a call Buccos Nation had been issuing all season. He introduced himself with a five-hit effort in his fourth game and carried a .300-plus average through the first 17 before the inevitable adjustment test began.

4. The bullpen chain rusts
Removing Jason Grilli -- first from the closer's job, then from the team -- had the effect of removing the bottom Jenga piece. The tower crumbled. The Bucs have already lost 10 games in which they either led or were tied after seven innings -- more than all last season.

5. Central beating
The Bucs built their '13 success on taking care of in-house foes -- they had a winning record within the NL Central for the very first time -- but are back to their old tricks. And nine of those 22 wins have come against the last-place Cubs.

Five storylines to keep an eye on

1. Pedro Alvarez, tick-tick-tick
The Pirates waited throughout the first half for Alvarez to detonate into one of his team-carrying stretches, and they are still waiting. He has begun to frustrate team staff -- with the glove, as well as with the bat -- as much as he can vex fans, and now there is a sense that his leash isn't unlimited.

2. Relief for the bullpen
The Pirates tried a rarity -- going with an intact bullpen in consecutive seasons. It broke, and now they will try to fix it. This is where Trade Deadline buzz will be focused. Bringing in a new closer would allow Mark Melancon and Tony Watson to return to the setup roles in which they excelled.

Second-half players to watch
Gerrit Cole
How quickly, and how well, can he bounce back from the tight lat that has him back on the DL?
Pedro Alvarez
The Bucs are still waiting for his typical stretch where he goes off and carries the club for a couple of weeks.
Tony Watson
Closer-in-waiting; his wait could end soon if Mark Melancon has a hiccup or two.

3. McCutchen raises his ceiling
Two-time Players Choice NL Outstanding Player and the 2013 NL MVP Award winner -- and Andrew McCutchen keeps finding ways to get better. He could exceed both his 2013 RBIs and walks totals before September -- an awesome combination, if you think about it, because the mounting walks reflect how often he is pitched around. In the field, too, he will continue to play his best-yet game.

4. Tracking Cole Train
Gerrit Cole's vitality to the team's fortunes is obvious. He is the only starter who can dominate with stuff, not just get by with command and defensive support. He has spent most of the last six weeks on the DL with two injuries, now with a sore lat prone to reaggravation if he tries to return too soon.

5. Clint Hurdle manages to keep going
His intimates know the extent of the constant pain with which he deals due to an arthritic hip, and anyone can relate to how distracting acute personal discomfort can be. Right now, Hurdle refuses to even consider taking the time-out hip-replacement surgery would require. If that changes, it could impact the Bucs' command into the stretch.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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