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Central, hark! Here come red-hot Pirates

Bucs sweep 4-game set from Crew to improve to division-best 36-24 since May 13
MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- Buyer? Seller? How about contender?

The Pirates woke up on July 4 nine games under .500, seven games out of first place in the National League Central. Since then, they've won 11 of 13 games, including Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Brewers at PNC Park, vaulting back to the break-even point and into a wide-open NL Central race.

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PITTSBURGH -- Buyer? Seller? How about contender?

The Pirates woke up on July 4 nine games under .500, seven games out of first place in the National League Central. Since then, they've won 11 of 13 games, including Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Brewers at PNC Park, vaulting back to the break-even point and into a wide-open NL Central race.

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"I wouldn't say it's good to be .500. It's good to be playing good baseball, the way we've been playing," catcher Chris Stewart said. "We feel like we're doing what we're capable of doing."

The Bucs finished a sweep of the division-leading Brewers on Thursday, climbing back to .500 for the first time since April 16 and pulling within three games of Milwaukee, which now has a one-game edge over the Cubs, who were idle Thursday, in the division.

"When we play our best baseball, we can compete with anybody," Andrew McCutchen said. "We've been doing that right now. We're just going to keep going."

Video: MIL@PIT: McCutchen bloops an RBI single to right

After finishing a 6-1 homestand against the Cardinals and Brewers, the Pirates packed their bags and boarded a flight for Colorado, where on Friday they will begin a 10-day road trip that ends the day before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

On Sunday, general manager Neal Huntington said a sweep "changes the dynamic in a much more positive direction." The Pirates delivered a sweep. Did they also send a message about what the front office should do come July 31?

"I don't care about the Trade Deadline," McCutchen said. "I just care about winning. That's all that matters."

That's all the Pirates have done lately, too, finally hitting their stride after a first half full of obstacles: the absence of Jung Ho Kang, the suspension of Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon's unfortunate cancer diagnosis plus several significant slumps and injuries.

"I've enjoyed watching our team all year. I enjoyed as well when we worked through the adversity," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Sometimes the adversity doesn't build character; it reveals it. I think our team showed up really well so far, from beginning until now, in dealing with the challenges."

Video: MIL@PIT: Hurdle on complete team effort, series sweep

They came from behind in each of their six wins since the start of the second half, and three of those victories were walk-offs delivered by players -- Josh Bell, Adam Frazier and Max Moroff -- who were in Double-A this time two years ago.

But the Pirates' success starts on the mound. Their 2.61 ERA in July ranks second in the Majors, behind only the Dodgers (2.03). Their rotation has stabilized, and their bullpen has been the best in baseball over the past three weeks. Over the last seven games, Pirates relievers pitched 23 1/3 innings and allowed only two runs -- both on home runs off setup man Juan Nicasio, who didn't allow a homer in the first half of the season.

Video: MIL@PIT: Rivero retires Santana to nail down the win

Quietly, the Pirates have been the best team in the NL Central the past two months, posting a 34-26 record since May 13. They know the formula, Stewart said: good starting pitching, timely hitting and a lights-out bullpen. They put it into play over the past week, and it put them back in the race.

"We know we're capable of that. It's just a matter of keeping up doing it throughout the season," Stewart said. "We know if we're playing our type of ballgame throughout the rest of the season, we're going to be at the top of the division."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

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