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Pirates are set for a September to remember

Nearing first winning season since '92, Bucs in the middle of playoff chase @RichardJustice

This one is for you, Pirates fans.

Remember what these days are like.

Isn't this what you've been waiting for? Go ahead and embrace the joy. Hey, you've earned it. What has it been? Twenty-one years since the last postseason appearance?

Here's the thing, though. It's not a one-way street. You have to embrace the pain, too. That's part of the deal.

You don't think they've suffered in Cincinnati and St. Louis a time or two through the years? Yes, they have, and in Atlanta and Detroit and every baseball town worth its salt. Heck, in Boston, they've turned suffering into a cottage industry.

I have no idea if the Pirates are going to finish this thing off or not. These last two weeks have been tough sledding as the rotation has slipped and the offense has been unable to pick up the slack.

Still, with 28 games remaining, the Pirates are tied for first place with the Cardinals. How does that sound? They haven't had a share of first this late in a season since 1992, which was also the last time they played a postseason game.

Rightly or wrongly, this weekend's series with the Cardinals has been seen as a kind of litmus test on whether the 2013 Pirates have more staying power than last season's club. The 2012 Bucs last had a share of first place on July 18, then finished 28-43 the rest of the way.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sees big games -- and all the other games -- as part of the process. Looking back on it, everything changed for the Pirates the moment he walked through that door in 2011. General manager Neal Huntington was well on his way to reconstructing the franchise when Hurdle went to work.

Hurdle was able to make sure that his expectations -- big expectations, championship expectations -- became an entire franchise's expectations. He's a big man with a booming voice and has the unique gift to make you believe that anything is possible. Hurdle knows this weekend's series against the Cardinals is a big one, but he also knows there'll be plenty of big ones after that.

He's also determined to experience the joy of the journey. This is his 39th season in professional baseball, so he has been around enough to know that seasons like this have to be appreciated, even the suffering.

Anyway, Francisco Liriano got the Pirates off to a good start on Friday with eight shutout innings in a 5-0 victory over the Cardinals in front of 38,026. It was the 16th sellout this season at PNC Park, where the Pirates are 44-24.

Since the park opened in 2001, plenty of us have wondered how spectacularly beautiful the place would look when it was packed and the Pirates were really good. On Friday night, we got a preview of what October baseball might look like on the North Shore.

Now with the Pirates and Cardinals tied for first place with 28 games remaining, this could be a September they remember in Pittsburgh for a long time. We're at that point in a season when fans count down the hours until first pitch, and then ride the highs and lows of a close race.

If there's ever a moment when a Pirates fan is inclined to think it's not worth it, he or she should pause a moment and remember what it was like a couple of years ago. By this time of the season, PNC Park would be empty and the Pirates would be looking toward the next season.

Regardless of how this plays out, the Pirates have been resurrected. They're relevant again. Andrew McCutchen stayed with the Pirates because he thought it would be pretty cool to be the man who helped get the club back to the playoffs.

Huntington has done a terrific job filling in the roster with a Russell Martin here and an A.J. Burnett there. So many players have to contribute for a team to get to the postseason that general managers never know which of their moves might end up being the difference between making and missing the postseason.

That's why Huntington has continued to work, acquiring outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck from the Mets on Tuesday, and Justin Morneau from the Twins on Saturday. He hopes left-hander Wandy Rodriguez and closer Jason Grilli can return from the disabled list to contribute.

Regardless, it feels right having the Pirates back in the mix in September. When the game's iconic franchises are good, the entire game is better. In Atlanta and Los Angeles, they pretty much know their clubs are going to be playing in October.

The Pirates are still playing with a season in the balance, and so these are like playoff games. Jeff Kent once said that the final weeks of a pennant race are amazing in that players pretty much put themselves in a different place mentally.

That is, they grind and grind on every pitch, knowing the season could be riding on every pitch. When it's over, they're more exhausted, both physically and mentally, than they could ever have imagined. And they appreciate it, too. They're thrilled to have landed in such a place.

That's where the Pirates are at these days. Every game matters. Enjoy the ride, folks.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Pittsburgh Pirates