Big test to begin for Pirates

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Pirates return to reality tonight.

After feasting on teams with losing records for more than two weeks, the Pirates return to some tougher National League Central competition by opening a seven-game trip tonight in St. Louis.

They’ll follow that with a weekend series in Cincinnati that will take them to the All-Star break.

The Pirates wrapped up a sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies with Sunday’s 6-2 victory at PNC Park.

That concluded an 8-2 homestand that started with the New York Mets and Arizona, which followed a 4-2 road trip against the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays. The 12-4 surge has allowed the Pirates to get a season-best six games over .500 at 47-41 and put them back in the division race.

The Pirates are currently in second place in the division, four and 1/2 games behind Milwaukee.

They’re a half game in front of the Cardinals, tonight’s opponent. The recurring theme in the clubhouse was the Pirates need to continue playing quality baseball, no matter who the opponent is.

“We know we’re going to play two good teams,” utility player Josh Harrison said. “But we’re at the point in the season where we just have to worry about us. If we go out there and play our game, we can win as many games as we want.”

The Pirates have tightened up all aspects of their play. The biggest improvement has been in the starting pitching, which has been going deep into games and easing the burden on the bullpen.

“It’s always fun for everybody when we’re playing the kind of baseball we expect to play,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Our challenge is to play our best baseball regardless of the competition. It’s been a good stretch, it’s been a good run as far as playing complete team baseball from all facets.”

The Pirates got into an early-season hole because they struggled with a schedule that was front-loaded with competition within the division.

The Pirates are 20-25 against the Central, 5-4 against the Cardinals, but 3-7 against the Reds.

“We’re not saying we have to do this or that before the All-Star break,” Harrison said. “We’re just going to go to St. Louis and take it one game at a time and the same for Cincinnati, and just worry about us.”

Barmes out

n Back-up infielder Clint Barmes went on the disabled list Sunday because of a groin injury he sustained during pre-game work on Saturday.

Barmes is expected to miss four to six weeks after he said he was injured as he stretched to take a throw.

“I knew it wasn’t good because it popped,” he said.

Michael Martinez was recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis and took Barmes spot on the roster on Sunday.

The Pirates also have utility infielder Dean Anna, who was claimed off waivers from the New York Yankees over the weekend.

General manager Neal Huntington said Harrison could get some work at shortstop, and he didn’t rule out the possibility of going outside the organization to acquire a defensively-skilled player.

“You hope the internal option is your best option, but you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t look at the external option,” Huntington said.

Cole update

n Righthander Gerrit Cole is on track to make his scheduled start Wednesday in St. Louis.

He will throw a sideline session this afternoon as a final test for his readiness.

Cole left Friday’s start after five innings because of soreness in his right lat muscle. It was his second start after spending time on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue.

On the road

n Tonight’s game starts a stretch which will have the Pirates on the road for 17 of their next 23 games.

Saying thanks

n The Pirates pretty much guaranteed A.J. Burnett would get a positive reception by showing a video of his Pirates highlights on the scoreboard when he took the mound in the bottom of the first.

Fans applauded and Burnett waved his cap, making the same gesture to the Pirates’ dugout.

After the game, he Tweeted, “Thank you Pittsburgh and the Pirates for that! Video caught me off guard! Yinz alright with me! #classy.”