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When going gets tough, Pirates get going

Club demonstrating consistent resilience in tightly contested battle for NL Central

ARLINGTON -- At the very end, Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez leaped into the air and pumped a fist.

"Pure, genuine excitement," he would say later.

This was another night when the Pirates showed the world they're made of the right stuff, that they're a tough, resilient, confident baseball team.

"We battled," Andrew McCutchen said.

Indeed, they did. They came here after being swept in St. Louis, a brutal weekend in which they were outscored 16-10.

Those three losses to the Cardinals extended the Pittsburgh losing streak to four games, and in a span of five days, a two-game lead in the National League Central had turned into a 1 1/2-game deficit.

To take a step back and see the larger picture, this is just what baseball's best division race is supposed to be. The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are all good teams, not perfect teams, but good teams.

All of them have had stretches this season when they looked like baseball's best team. All of them have also had stretches when almost nothing went right. And yet, all three have gathered themselves and fought back. And that's what the Pirates did.

They beat the Rangers 1-0 on Monday and 5-4 on Tuesday. Both games made for great theater, tough and close with terrific finishes.

The Pirates breezed into the bottom of the ninth with a 5-2 lead on Tuesday and the game in the hands of one of baseball's best bullpens.

Pirates closer Mark Melancon eventually nailed it down, but not before allowing two runs to score. With the tying run on third base and the winning run on first, Melancon struck out Adrian Beltre to end it.

With 18 games remaining, the Pirates are a game behind the first-place Cardinals and two in front of the third-place Reds. They have six more games with the Reds, all of them in the final 10 days of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Cardinals play 15 of their final 18 games against teams with losing records.

The Pirates say it's important not to look ahead, to simply focus on one day at a time and see how it all plays out. So when they were swept in St. Louis, they came to Texas unshaken.

"The season's not going to stop, and you've got to find a way to play and look for opportunity," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You get to do things this late in the season."

He meant that players go their whole careers without experiencing a division race like the one the Pirates are in. It's not just that the Pirates almost certainly are headed back to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. It's that they're taking the tough road, the road that has tested them again and again.

"It's nice we were able to punch back these first two and get something done here," Hurdle said.

His starting pitcher, left-hander Francisco Liriano, allowed the Rangers one run in six innings, but it was not his best night. He struggled to locate his fastball, so was left relying on his slider and changeup.

But he did enough to get by, and Hurdle used four relievers to get the final nine outs. It was an exhausting game, and they have a quick turnaround with the final game of the series Wednesday afternoon.

"The Rangers are a good team, a good ballclub," McCutchen said. "We played a hard nine innings. Every run counts."

The Pirates ended up needing every one of them. Shortstop Jordy Mercer had four hits and McCutchen added three. There were other contributions from almost every corner of the clubhouse.

"It was a complete effort from everybody that got involved," Hurdle said. "Good to see."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Mark Melancon, Tony Sanchez, Andrew McCutchen, Francisco Liriano, Jordy Mercer