Courtesy of StepOutside.org

Pirates 2.5 back, bona fide contenders at break

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Bryan Reynolds is greeted by Adam Frazier and Kevin Kramer after his three-run home run Sunday at PNC Park. - AP

The unofficial first half of the season came to an end for the Pirates on Sunday. And what an eventful first half it was.

The Pirates put a roster full of players on the injured list. They also endured losing streaks of eight games and seven games.

Yet they are firmly in contention to win the National League Central despite their pedestrian 44-45 record.

After beating the Brewers, 6-5, Sunday at PNC Park, the Pirates trail the first-place Cubs by 2 1/2 games. Fittingly, they start a three-game series Friday in Chicago after the All-Star break.

“Gosh, how could you not be? Especially when you consider where we’ve been and what we’ve done,” Clint Hurdle said when I asked if he was happy with his team’s position in the standings. “It’s important what I think, but it’s more important what (the players) think. They believe they are in the hunt and they continue to fight.”

The Pirates are not quite a .500 team. However, their spirits are high after winning 14 of their last 20 games going into the break.

“I feel really good with where we’re at,” Joe Musgrove was saying at his locker after the game. “We’re within striking distance. I think everyone’s on top of their game right now. Pitching and hitting is coming along at the same time and we’re playing good baseball.”

Bryan Reynolds delivered the big blow for the Pirates, hitting a three-run home run in the seventh inning off Junior Guerra (3-2) to snap a 3-3 tie:

Reynolds finished with four RBIs, as he also had a run-producing double in the fifth that pushed the Pirates' lead to 3-1. The rookie outfielder was in a slump for the first time in his nascent career with three hits in his previous 22 at-bats before his double.

“Everyone goes through slumps at every level,” Reynolds said. “It happens to everybody.”

Even a guy who is hitting .342/.414/.536 with seven home runs through the first 67 games of his career. As Hurdle mentioned after the game, winning teams need contributions from unlikely sources. Reynolds qualifies as such, as he was expected to spend most of the season at Class AAA Indianapolis before injuries led to his major-league debut April 20.

“He’s got to be setting some kind of rookie records,” Musgrove said with a smile.

Reynolds’ home run came after Jesus Aguilar’s two-run blast in top of the seventh off Musgrove tied the game. It was Aguilar’s second homer of the game as he hit a leadoff shot in the fifth to draw the Brewers to within 2-1.

Musgrove was lifted after the second home run and wound up allowing three runs in six-plus innings. Perhaps the most impressive part of his day was returning to pitch after the game was delayed for 40 minutes at the end of the fifth inning. Rare is the occasion when a pitcher gets the opportunity to continue in that situation. He spoke about it after the game:

Francisco Liriano (2-1) relieved Musgrove and pitched one scoreless inning. Kyle Crick gave up a two-run homer to Keston Hiura in the eighth that made it a one-run game, but Felipe Vazquez came on to notch a four-out save. The All-Star now has converted 20 of 21 save opportunities.

Adam Frazier had three of the Pirates’ 10 hits, and Colin Moran and Kevin Newman added two apiece.

“It’s good to go into the break with momentum,” Musgrove said. “Now it’s a good time to relax, refresh and recharge and get ready for the second half, because it’s going to be a dogfight and we’ll be ready for it.”

THE ESSENTIALS

• Boxscore
• Video highlights
Scoreboard
• Standings

THE INJURIES

Steven Brault, left-hander, was placed on the 10-day IL on Saturday with a left shoulder strain. He was injured during Friday's game with the Brewers.

Gregory Polancoright fielder, is on the 10-day IL with a left posterior shoulder strain. He is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis.

Francisco Cervellicatcher, is on the seven-day concussion IL.

Jameson Taillonright-hander, is on the 60-day IL with a right elbow flexor-tendon strain.

Keone Kelaright-hander, is on the 60-day IL with right shoulder inflammation. He pitched a simulated game Saturday.

• Rookie Davis, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with a right middle-finger blister and is now rehabbing a strained right forearm at the Pirates' training facility in Bradenton, Fla.

• Erik Gonzalez, shortstop, is on the 60-day IL with a left clavicle fracture, and is on a rehab assignment with Indianapolis.

Lonnie Chisenhall, outfielder, is on the 60-day IL with a left calf strain.

THE SCHEDULE

The Pirates are off for the All-Star break until Friday when they open the second half with a three-game series at Wrigley Field. Chris Archer (3-6, 5.49) will start against Yu Darvish (2-4, 5.01).

Josh Bell will participate in the All-Star Home Run Derby on Monday night at Cleveland and he and Vazquez will be on the National League team for Tuesday night's All-Star Game at Progressive Field.

I will be both in Cleveland and Chicago for the coverage.

THE COVERAGE

All our expanded baseball coverage, including Indy Watch by Matt WelchAltoona Watch by Jarrod Prugar, and Mound Visit by Jason Rollison, can be found on our team page.

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