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Pirates looking to shake off injuries, chase down NL Central leaders

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PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an average, every day — if still heated — pennant race.

A season after shedding the yoke of two decades of failure with a stirring run to a playoff berth, the Pirates are just another solid if not spectacular team trying to keep pace in the jam-packed NL Central.

To be honest, being an ordinary contender is refreshing.

"We know where we stand, we know where we are, we know we have to play good baseball and we know it's not a matter of changing the course of Pirates history anymore or having a winning season," second baseman Neil Walker said. "Those things were important, but now we know what we need to do to get to the playoffs."

And do it without what Walker called the "unnecessary pressure" Pittsburgh faced in 2013, when the Pirates won 94 games and advanced to the NL division series.

Rather than be reminded at every turn how bad the franchise has been, the Pirates have been free to spend the first half of 2014 sorting themselves out in relative anonymity.

After scuffling through April and dealing with a string of injuries to Walker, catcher Russell Martin, pitchers Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh begins the second half on Friday against Colorado just 3 1/2 games behind front-running Milwaukee. Heady territory considering the Pirates were floundering eight games under .500 two months ago.

"We're in a good spot right now," Martin said.

Getting another MVP-worthy performance from centre fielder Andrew McCutchen has helped. The All-Star is hitting .324, leads the NL in total bases and is on pace to set personal bests in home runs and RBIs.

Yet McCutchen is hardly doing it alone. Utility man Josh Harrison parlayed his ebullient play into an unlikely All-Star berth.

Rookie right fielder Gregory Polanco's arrival on June 10 gave the club a needed boost. Pittsburgh is 19-13 in games the raw 6-foot-5 talent has stood next to McCutchen in the outfield. That's hardly a coincidence.

Still, the Pirates understand they've been a mixed bag. The bullpen has blown 16 saves, the most in the majors.

Left fielder Starling Marte — who returned from bereavement leave on Thursday — has watched his confidence yo-yo with his spot in the batting order. The top end of the starting rotation, particularly Liriano, has struggled staying healthy.

Liriano was a revelation in 2013. Looking to rejuvenate his career, the left-hander did more than that while going 16-8 and earning a handful of Cy Young votes.

A year later, Liriano is just 1-7 with a 4.72 ERA, including four rusty innings against Cincinnati last Sunday in his return from the disabled list.

While journeymen Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley have helped stabilize things next to Charlie Morton and a resurgent Jeff Locke, Liriano understands if the Pirates are going to make a serious run at things he needs to be better.

"They count on me," Liriano said. "I'm just going to do everything I can to keep the team in the game."

It's why Liriano spent his All-Star break trying to stay within his routine. He threw a bullpen session with his cousin and stressed he feels refreshed after three frustrating months.

"Now that I'm healthy, I think I can pitch a lot better than what I was pitching," he said.

Particularly if he can find a way to do it against the teams the Pirates are chasing. Pittsburgh is a combined 13-26 against Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati. To provide another memorable September, that number has to improve.

"It's been a stone in our shoe," Walker said.

One Pittsburgh needs to shake loose. The Pirates will get a break from the NL Central to start the second half. They don't face another division opponent until travelling to Milwaukee in late-August.

While Martin allows the playoff chase could be on life support by then if Pittsburgh can't find a way to improve its road record (20-26), he's not concerned.

Last fall showed the Pirates they could navigate the choppy and unpredictable waves of a pennant race, an experience Martin expects to pay off in the months ahead.

"The fact is, we're in it," he said. "We have a ton of games left against our own division and we're getting stronger."

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