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Pirates look to overtake Cards in NL Central

Pittsburgh closed first half on hot streak, looks to continue it
MLB.com @Tom_Singer

PITTSBURGH -- One thing is certain about the Pirates, after the manner in which they ended the season's first half: They can't wait for the second half to begin, eager to see what other chapters they will write.

The Bucs have been at their grittiest for three months -- 25 comeback wins, 13 wins with three runs or fewer, 13-2 in their last 15 one-run games, six straight extra-inning wins -- but still have not been at their best, and they know it. The ceiling is so much higher, and it can be reached if all the cylinders in their lineup start pumping in unison.

PITTSBURGH -- One thing is certain about the Pirates, after the manner in which they ended the season's first half: They can't wait for the second half to begin, eager to see what other chapters they will write.

The Bucs have been at their grittiest for three months -- 25 comeback wins, 13 wins with three runs or fewer, 13-2 in their last 15 one-run games, six straight extra-inning wins -- but still have not been at their best, and they know it. The ceiling is so much higher, and it can be reached if all the cylinders in their lineup start pumping in unison.

They have spent the first half turning "resilience" from a cliche into a modus operandi. At every turn, they have overcome adversity -- much of their own making. Manager Clint Hurdle has even coined another of his signature phrases to cover it: This is the "So What? Now What?" Gang.

Only one obstacle now remains, and we have 11 weeks to find out if they can clear the St. Louis Cardinals, too.

FIVE KEY DEVELOPMENTS

1. Andrew McCutchen unchained
After the May 6 game against the Reds, McCutchen was batting .188, the Pirates had a record of 12-15 and the one-time MVP blamed himself. Thereafter, McCutchen has hit .351 and the Pirates have a record of 41-20.

Video: Must C Catch: Cutch goes all out with beautiful dive

2. Cole Train on fast track
Four years after being the Majors' No. 1 Draft pick, Gerrit Cole is the Majors' No. 1 pitcher. Stuff and demeanor do not always match the resulting record, but they have in the case of the Bucs' uncontested ace.

3. Rotation sensation
A year ago, the Pirates had 27 wins from starting pitchers at the break. Now they have 39. With Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett returning, pitching coach Ray Searage expected to have a solid quintet. But world-class solid? No one had that.

4. Kangman Style
Jung Ho Kang quickly evolved from a mystery -- the first position player in the Majors from the Korean Baseball Organization -- into a discovery. From hearsay, it was all about the power, not yet seen. But he has proven to be a fantastic player with a shed-full of unexpected tools.

5. Refuse to snooze
With the combination of their slow start and a record run by the Cardinals, the Bucs trailed by nine games a month into the season -- and they were still nine games back on June 28. Then came the surge, bringing them into the break 2 1/2 games behind and putting the walk into their talk of a division title.

Video: STL@PIT: Polanco hits a walk-off single in the 10th

FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH

1. Burnett's glorious sunset
Burnett spent his career yearning to make his mark, to do something special, and for 16 years had been frustrated in that pursuit. In his 17th and final season, he has hit the mark, being in the process of the grandest exit ever. Can he keep the 11 weeks remaining before he goes out the door just as special?

Video: STL@PIT: Burnett on going to the ASG, retiring

2. Treading trades
General manager Neal Huntington has been quiet leading up to the last two July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadlines. The loss of Josh Harrison until September with a torn thumb ligament will make Huntington more willing and eager to act. Could expiring patience with Pedro Alvarez's performance at first base also goad the GM into a move -- if the decision is ever reached that the Bucs simply can't continue to deal with the defensive liability?

3. Mark Melancon, wall to wall
Or will Melancon hit the wall? We won't call it a jinx, but the Pirates haven't been able to get a full season out of their closer since Joel Hanrahan, in 2011. Injury and/or ineffectiveness have mandated in-season changes. The work ethic and Hurdle's smart use of the National League's saves leader should end that trend.

4. Bench-pressing
Confident in the core players, the front office put its offseason focus on beefing up a woeful bench. Sean Rodriguez has become a constant force, but the rest of it again is deficient. The possible return of Corey Hart (he's now having knee problems, on top of an older shoulder issue) would help, but the traffic from Triple-A Indianapolis will pick up as the club searches for a good combination.

Video: Must C Catch: Rodriguez twists, turns, hauls in out

5. Polanco, the missing link
Circumstances last year forced the Pirates to rush Gregory Polanco to the Majors, and his struggles from last year have continued. Yet he is already indispensable, and having him continuing to improve with the bat would make a strong lineup into a fierce one. If anything, his responsibility grows as the leadoff batter in the wake of Harrison's injury.

FIRST-HALF AWARDS

MVP: McCutchen. Remember his slow start? Didn't think so. "Cutch" has rounded back into MVP form.
Cy Young: Cole, Burnett. It's too hard to pick one of these first-time All-Stars over the other. One thing's for sure: The Pirates wouldn't be where they are without them.
Rookie: Kang. His playing time has fluctuated, but the Korean rookie has shown an advanced approach at the plate and sure hands in the field, especially at third base.
Top reliever: Melancon. Despite a shaky April and early concerns about his velocity, Melancon has once again been one of the Majors' most dependable closers.

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN SECOND HALF

Polanco: When will Polanco's production match his immense potential? Should the Pirates find him a platoon partner at the Trade Deadline?
Alvarez: Alvarez possesses game-changing power, but his bat often goes quiet -- and his glove keeps him in the dugout late in games. If he gets hot, he can solidify the middle of the Pirates' lineup.
Harrison: The Bucs will miss their dynamic leadoff man and most versatile defender while he's on the disabled list. Will he be ready and able to contribute down 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 and on his podcast.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Pedro Alvarez, A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole, Josh Harrison, Jung Ho Kang, Francisco Liriano, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon, Gregory Polanco, Sean Rodriguez