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Next month’s fortunes could define Pirates’ season

Things are sometimes not quite what they may appear to be.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have recently been flirting with last place in the National League Central Division, but looks can be deceiving.

Following a sweep of the San Diego Padres this past weekend at PNC Park, the Pirates were closer to first place in their division than either of the two second-place teams, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Colorado Rockies, were to the respective top spots in the NL East and NL West divisions.

After closing their recent homestand with four straight victories, the Pirates are also back in consideration in the NL Wild Card race, as well.

The next month of the schedule could — and perhaps should — determine whether the Pirates become contenders or pretenders, buyers or sellers, before Major League Baseball’s July 31 trading deadline.

The Pirates’ schedule over the next month appears to be quite daunting. It began with three games against the defending American League champion Houston Astros Tuesday night in Houston and continues with a three-game weekend series against the Milwaukee Brewers in Milwaukee.

Houston was considered a strong favorite to defend its American League championship at the outset of the season, but the Astros have been beset with injuries to key players, and they entered the Pirates series Tuesday as winners of just three of their previous 10 games.

The Astros were swept in a three-game series by the Reds in Cincinnati just last week.

The Brewers swept the Pirates in a three-game series in Milwaukee just a few weeks ago, and they’ve won six of seven meetings this season with the Bucs. Therefore, the Pirates have plenty of incentive to square accounts with the Brewers, who have been battling the Chicago Cubs for the top spot in the NL Central.

Milwaukee has also been trending downward lately, despite the other-worldly hitting of outfielder Christian Yelich, who is on pace to hit well over 50 home runs this season.

The Pirates have home-and-home series with both the Brewers and Cubs over the next month. The Bucs will host Milwaukee in a three-game weekend series July 5-7, after hosting the Cubs in four games next Monday through Thursday.

The Cubs, despite their high payroll and awesome array of talent, haven’t asserted themselves in the division race, either. The Pirates will return next week’s Cubs’ visit with a three-game trip to Chicago’s Wrigley Field July 12-14.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who were pegged as NL Central favorites by several media outlets after acquiring slugger Paul Goldschmidt in the offseason, also haven’t lived up to their hype as a team. The Pirates play three games against the third-place Cardinals in St. Louis July 15-17, before hosting the Redbirds for four games July 22-25.

In between, the Pirates play three home games July 19-21 against the Bryce Harper-led Phillies, who have a winning record, but were considered strong NL East contenders before the Phils’ recent 1-9 free-fall enabled the Atlanta Braves to take control of first place.

What works against the Pirates is that they will have to leapfrog three teams — the Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals — for the division lead, as well as stave off the vastly-improving Cincinnati Reds. When you have multiple horses in the running, the race gets tougher.

The same scenario exists in the Wild Card hunt, where the Pirates are within striking distance but have several teams, including the Phillies, currently ahead of them.

All of this makes building a sizeable advantage in their upcoming head-to-head matchups imperative for the Bucs.

If the Pirates go, say, 16-10 in the 26 -game stretch that started with Tuesday night’s Houston opener and will end with the finale of the four-game series with the Cardinals July 25 at PNC Park, they’d be two games over .500 and could well be in the thick of things in a division where no team has gone on an extended tear.

“We want to get hot, we want to make a run at a playoff (spot),” shortstop Kevin Newman said recently in the Pirates’ locker room at PNC Park. “Obviously, that’s the goal for everybody in here.”

If that happens, the Pirates would likely be buyers rather than sellers in July.

It’s a big “if,” however, for a team that has been riddled with key injuries and recently lost 18 of 24 games.

Two pulse-stopping, come-from-behind victories during the last homestand may have set the wheels of momentum in motion for the Pirates.

But the next month will go a long way toward shaping their entire 2019 season.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

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