Stretching the Field: Are the Pirates headed for summer swoon?

This time of year calls for vacations, barbecues, throwing horse shoes and any other warm-weather activity that whets an appetite.

Summer also spikes the interest in baseball because the NHL, NBA and NFL are out of season. Canada has the CFL to follow and that league doesn't do much to draw attention in the United States.

In western Pennsylvania, this time of year usually signifies the downfall of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Known for their late-summer collapses and ineptitude to keep a hot streak going after the All-Star break, the Pirates once again teased and tormented with nine straight wins to end June and looked down on the rest of the National League.

Keeping St. Louis and Cincinnati at bay in the NL Central is a demanding task as well. Since then, however, the Pirates have been knocked from their perch and have many wondering if another summer swoon is in store. It has happened before and most recently the last three seasons.

Pittsburgh stumbled to six losses in eight tries following the win streak and righted itself temporarily with Wednesday's 5-0 win over the Oakland Athletics. It was the first win ever against the A's and Pittsburgh, which dropped some winnable games by a run or two, did it behind brilliant pitching from Francisco Liriano. Liriano got the fans excited once again by throwing seven shutout innings and now leads the team in wins with nine.

"It was great," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the left-hander's performance. "He set the tone is what he did. He dominated. His efficiency, his command ... everything. He was on top of his game."

Whether Liriano stays on top of his game is unknown, but it's clear he is one of the bright spots for the Pirates this season. How long will it last? That remains to be seen because Pittsburgh has come up short every year since 1992, when grunge music took the nation by storm and Hypercolor T-shorts were cool.

Pitching and hitting, obviously the two key ingredients to winning, have been hard to come by in recent years for the Pirates from late July to September, and this month is a reflection of that. Prized pitching prospect Gerrit Cole now knows what it's like to lose and could be in for some more disappointing endings when the league starts to figure out his tendencies.

Cole, though, joins Liriano and All-Star pitcher Jeff Locke as those who must remain consistent for the remainder of the season and, quite possibly, the playoffs. Yes, that's right. The playoffs. I can hear Jim Mora loud and clear.

August and September have been the biggest hurdles for the Pirates in the past. Is it fatigue, wear and tear on the body or a lack of concentration that takes a toll on the Buccos down the stretch? There aren't too many major injuries to be concerned with besides starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez (forearm).

Rodriguez hasn't pitched since June 5 and the Pirates need him. But the club did activate Liriano and fellow pitchers Jeanmar Gomez and Charlie Morton. Morton impressed yours truly in a rehab game against Lehigh Valley a few weeks ago and was throwing in the high 90s. Meanwhile, Locke has only two losses in 18 starts this season and will join teammates Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Jason Grilli in next week's All-Star game at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

Alvarez leads the team in home runs (23) and RBI (60), and will participate in the Home Run Derby. Some players' swings are altered for the worse when they join the longball festivities (see Bobby Abreu) and the Pirates can't have an unproductive Alvarez when play resumes July 19 in the opener of a 10-game road trip to Cincinnati, Washington and Miami.

McCutchen was in the Home Run Derby a season ago and it didn't hinder his performance, as he batted .289 with 13 homers, 36 RBI and 49 runs in the second half. McCutchen and Alvarez are the heart and soul of the offense and must continue to flourish to break Pittsburgh's postseason curse.

The Pirates, who have control of one of the two wild card spots and still own the highest winning percentage in baseball, are playoff-starved and should be paying attention, taking notes and analyzing the reasons why they have faltered down the stretch.

They take their fans on the ultimate ride early on and climax right about this time of year. They have the talent to overthrow St. Louis and Cincinnati in the division and make a deep run into the postseason against any other opponent in the NL.

How the Pirates get there is totally up to them.