DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: Can’t deny real contention ☕

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Kevin Newman is welcomed in the dugout after scoring on Joe Musgrove's bunt Sunday at PNC Park. - AP

"They believe they are in the hunt," Clint Hurdle was beaming on this steaming Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, "and they continue to fight.”

No one could argue it.

Check that: No one should argue it.

Forget whatever anyone on the outside -- myself included -- expected when pitchers and catchers reported to Bradenton. Forget all those lopsided losses. Forget all 24 different players to appear on Major League Baseball's injury list. Heck, go the distance and forget Dovydas Neverauskas and all the other Neverauskases brought up for the big-league slaughter.

Forget everything but this: Two. Point. Five.

That's the Maddon-be-damned separation:

That's it. Two. Point. Five.

We're past the point where expressing hope for these peculiar, precocious Pirates is about optimism. It's not even an opinion. It's nothing more than math.

Oh, and all this:

That, of course, was Bryan Reynolds' three-run blast, followed by Felipe Vazquez's double-play save, followed by the latest round of hops and high-fives for the 6-5 fending-off of the Brewers on Sunday at PNC Park. That also was a 14th victory in the past 21 games going into the All-Star break, a climb within one game of .500 and the closest proximity to first place since May 7.

You know, back before all the starting pitchers began plunging off figurative cliffs.

This is real. That's all I've got to add to the above. Josh Bell's 27 home runs, 84 RBIs and sudden superstardom is real. Bryan Reynolds' .342 average, eighth-best by a rookie at the break in major-league history, is real. The combined .335 average between Reynolds and Kevin Newman, the highest by any rookie teammates at the break in baseball history, is real. Colin Moran rounding second and heading for third, as he impressively pulled off Sunday, is real. Elias Diaz's maturity into a legit starting catcher is real. Adam Frazier's 18 hits already this month is ... man, that's surreal.

My goodness, the team's cumulative .271 batting average, highest in the National League, is real, too. A season hasn't ended that way since 1991.

The pitching ... eh, go get some more. Maybe they will. But some of what's already in the fold has found at least a little equilibrium, so it's hardly a start-from-scratch proposition.

You'd better believe the clawing, the character, all of that's real.

"We believe in each other. We support each other," Bell told me Sunday. "But we've been doing that all along."

No doubt. Only now it's got a real feel for the rest of us.

Two. Point. Five.

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