PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an average, every day — if still heated — pennant race.
A season after shedding the yoke of two decades of failure with a stirring run to a playoff berth, the Pirates are just another solid if not spectacular team trying to keep pace in the jam-packed NL Central.
To be honest, being an ordinary contender is refreshing.
"We know where we stand, we know where we are, we know we have to play good baseball and we know it's not a matter of changing the course of Pirates history anymore or having a winning season," second baseman Neil Walker said. "Those things were important, but now we know what we need to do to get to the playoffs."
And do it without what Walker called the "unnecessary pressure" Pittsburgh faced in 2013, when the Pirates won 94 games and advanced to the NL division series.
Rather than be reminded at every turn how bad the franchise has been, the Pirates have been free to spend the first half of 2014 sorting themselves out in relative anonymity.
After scuffling through April and dealing with a string of injuries to Walker, catcher Russell Martin, pitchers Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh begins the second half on Friday against Colorado just 3½ games behind front-running Milwaukee. Heady territory considering the Pirates were floundering eight games under .500 two months ago.
"We're in a good spot right now," Martin said.
Getting another MVP-worthy performance from center fielder Andrew McCutchen has helped. The All-Star is hitting .324, leads the NL in total bases and is on pace to set personal bests in home runs and RBIs.
Yet McCutchen is hardly doing it alone. Utility man Josh Harrison parlayed his ebullient play into an unlikely All-Star berth.
Rookie right fielder Gregory Polanco's arrival on June 10 gave the club a needed boost. Pittsburgh is 19-13 in games the raw 6-foot-5 talent has stood next to McCutchen in the outfield. That's hardly a coincidence.
Still, the Pirates understand they've been a mixed bag. The bullpen has blown 16 saves, the most in the majors.
Left fielder Starling Marte — who returned from bereavement leave on Thursday — has watched his confidence yo-yo with his spot in the batting order. The top end of the starting rotation, particularly Liriano, has struggled staying healthy.