Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves a loveable underdog for a good portion of their 20-season stretch of consecutive losing campaigns.
Now thanks to a core led by All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, they are turning into a team that continues to make a case to be the top dog in the National League Central.
The Pirates entered last season's All-Star break one game back of the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the division. And while they weren't able to overcome the Cardinals for that top spot, their 94-68 record was good enough for a wild card berth and first playoff berth since 1992.
Heading into the break for the 2014 All-Star Game, the Pirates again find themselves on the heels of the division lead with a game left before the hiatus. They are fourth in the NL Central, but only 2 1/2 games back of co- leaders St. Louis and Milwaukee.
That is certainly a deficit that can be made up and Pittsburgh has done so with a 20-12 mark over its last 32 games. McCutchen, the reigning NL MVP and one of the best players in baseball, has been the big spark as he leads the NL with 13 homers, 38 RBI and a .359 average since June 1.
McCutchen's talents were on full display on Saturday night against the rival Cincinnati Reds as he hit a game-tying homer in the ninth inning before a solo shot in the 11th frame served as the winning run.
It marked the second time this month and third time on the season that the Pirates won when trailing after eight innings.
"We play, from the start to the end," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told his team's website. "Sometimes we're questioned, 'How do you bounce back?' We just bounce back."
The Pirates will need to play from start to finish again in a tight division, but their chances remain solid with McCutchen in the mix. He is in line to become the first Pirate to start an All-Star Game since Jason Bay in 2006 and the seventh player in club history to earn a selection by the fan voting.
He joins some nice company that includes Bay, Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, Dave Parker, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
Any time you are on a list with Clemente and Stargell, you are doing something right and McCutchen has helped to make baseball in Pittsburgh an event.
Now it is up to the front office to keep things going and the club will need to make some moves before the deadline. The biggest decision will be if there is enough trust in reliever Mark Melancon to handle closer duties taken over from Jason Grilli, who was demoted and then traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 27 for Ernesto Frieri.
Melancon has converted each of his past six save chances and is 16-for-19 in the role with an ERA of 2.38 over a total of 44 games. However, the 16 saves are just four of his career high set in 2011 with Houston.
Frieri has closer experience, but pitched his way out of that spot with the Angels and has allowed six runs in four innings since joining Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have the offensive tools to remain a force in the NL Central, but added pitching will be the key if the club wants to return to the playoffs.