Fresh off their best first half in 38 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates are hoping another second-half fade isn't on the horizon.
The Pirates come out of the break with 10 straight on the road, beginning on Friday night with the first of three straight against the division-rival Cincinnati Reds.
Pittsburgh won three of its final four games before the hiatus, giving it a 56-37 mark. That has the Pirates a game behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who own the best record in baseball, for the top spot in the NL Central.
The 56 wins are the most for the Pirates since they went 55-33 in 1975 and was one shy of the club record, set by the World Series-winning 1971 team.
Pittsburgh, of course, has not had a winning season or made the playoffs since 1992 (96-66) and seemed in prime position to end that drought in each of the past two seasons before struggling down the stretch. The key for the Pirates this season may be self-placed expectations.
"We're pleased, but there is nobody in that clubhouse who is satisfied," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're in a good spot. We played hard to the finish of the first half."
Pittsburgh was keyed by All-Star third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is second in the NL with 24 homers. He is just the third Pirate to reach that mark before the break, joining solid company in Willie Stargell (1971) and Ralph Kiner (1950).
Alvarez has seen plenty of opportunities to drive in runs as Starling Marte (28) and Andrew McCutchen (20) were the first pair of Pittsburgh players to have at least 20 steals before the All-Star break since Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds in 1987.
However, no Pirate may have had more of surprising first half than Francisco Liriano, who has gone 9-3 with a 2.00 earned run average in 12 starts this season. He lost 12 games with a combined 5.34 ERA in 34 games last year with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota.
The left-hander has won four straight and six of his last seven starts, having allowed just four runs over his current unbeaten streak. Liriano hurled seven frames of four-hit ball to help the Pirates blank the Oakland Athletics 5-0 last Wednesday. He walked one and fanned six.
"The one walk, the six punchouts, just the command of everything tonight," Hurdle said of Liriano. "He was just on top of his game."
That has not been the case for the 29-year-old against the Reds this season, as two of his three setbacks have come in his two meetings with Cincinnati. Liriano, who had never faced the Reds before this season, does have a solid 2.25 ERA in the two encounters.
The Reds counter with their most consistent starter of the first half in Mike Leake, who is 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA through 18 starts and has allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of his past 11 outings.
Leake closed his first half with a victory over Milwaukee last Wednesday, yielding two runs on four hits and four walks in 8 1/3 innings.
"It wasn't the best game I've pitched. They put some pressure on me. They made me work, but I definitely made some pitches when I needed to," said Leake on his performance.
The 25-year-old righty is 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA in three matchups with Pittsburgh this season, giving up just one run over 13 innings in a pair of June wins.
The Reds trail the Pirates by four games for second place in the NL Central, though their .558 winning percentage is the fourth best in the league. Cincinnati, though, has lost six of 10 and is four games under .500 (9-13) since a 13-inning victory over Pittsburgh on June 19.
"We've had a good first half. Obviously, we're not in first place and that's where we want to be, but we've played well," said Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. "We haven't played as well as we're going to, and I look forward to doing that."
Bruce leads the Reds with 19 homers and went deep in an 8-4 win over Atlanta to end the first half on Sunday. He snapped a drought of 18 straight games without a home run.
Shin-Soo Choo, meanwhile, brings a 12-game hitting streak into tonight's game, batting .429 over that time. Joey Votto has reached base in 29 straight games with an NL-leading .434 on-base percentage on the season, just ahead of Choo's .425 OBP.
The Pirates have won six of 10 over the Reds this season, splitting four games in Cincinnati.