The Pirates are about to start their biggest series of the season, both in duration and in importance.
The first-place St. Louis Cardinals come to town Monday to play five games at PNC Park in a four-day stretch. And the Pirates are excited to get five cracks at the team they currently see at the top of the standings.
"We're competing to be the best, and you have to beat those teams to be the best," reliever Mark Melancon said. "Those are fun games for us."
The two teams atop the National League Central Division have played five times this season, with the Pirates winning three. One game was rained out in April, creating an old-fashioned doubleheader Tuesday.
And in the middle of the pivotal series is the trade deadline Wednesday, which could do as much, if not more, for both teams' chances as their on-field production in this five-game series.
"I think our park's going to get electric," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
Including these five games, the Pirates and Cardinals will play 14 times before the end of the season.
"It's a chance to make up a lot of ground and to get us in the better position we need to be in," first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones said. "They're important games -- every game is important -- but those five games will be even more important, as far as our division goes."
That's 23.7 percent of the Pirates' remaining schedule.
"It's very unique," Hurdle said. "I don't know if I've been in a situation like that before. It worked out that way for a reason. We won't have to worry about not having an opportunity to play them."
The Pirates, Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds figure to fit into the division race through the end of the season. And because the league takes two wild-card teams, which started in 2012, it's quite possible all three could make the postseason.
But winning the division is still a top priority. And players are paying attention to what their rivals are doing every day.
"I think we're really good about it," pitcher Gerrit Cole said. "We watch the scoreboard, just like you do. We're aware of it -- we're not oblivious -- but we don't dwell on it."
The televisions in the clubhouse are frequently on ESPN or MLB Network, where it's hard to avoid discussions about division races. And modern ballparks feature gigantic glowing scoreboards that update activity from around the major leagues -- none more obvious than the one pointed right at the Pirates dugout at PNC Park.
"You're going to get information just when you walk in the clubhouse, the TVs are on," Hurdle said. "You can get your snippets there, how much you want to watch, how much you don't want to watch. It's like ice cream -- I like ice cream. I don't like a lot of ice cream."
When a solo falls flat
The Pirates aren't having many problems hitting home runs. It's making those home runs count as much as possible that has become the issue.
Of the 100 homers the Pirates had hit entering their weekend series against the Miami Marlins, 65 were solo home runs. That percentage (.650) is well above the league average (.603) and represents a big increase over 2012 (.565).
The Pirates rank 15th in the majors in total home runs. But they rank near the bottom of the league in runs generated by home runs.
"That's just the way it goes sometimes," Andrew McCutchen said. "I'm not worried about it. It's coincidence probably, more than likely. You get pitched differently with [men on]. You don't see too many hanging breaking balls."
McCutchen is a case study in the Pirates' solo home run trend. Of the 14 home runs he had hit heading into this weekend, 11 were solo home runs (78.6 percent). Last season, he clubbed 31 home runs, 17 of them solo (54.8).
Even more problematic for the Pirates, they have hit just six home runs that scored three or four runs this season. At 6 percent, that's the smallest ratio in the NL Central. The league average is 11.5 percent.
"Three-run homers are great," Hurdle said. "We haven't had a whole bunch of them. The guys are hitting homers. That's a step in the right direction."
Jones, who has six solo home runs out of 10 total this season, said players tend to change their approach at the plate with men on base, taking fewer risks to try to put the ball in play.
"It's a tough thing because you want to stay short through the ball," he said. "When you've got guys on, pitchers tend to go to the off-speed a lot, or try to go hard up and in and get you out with soft away. Maybe guys shorten up a bit just to try to hit a nice line drive or a base hit to get that runner in."
Although a large percentage of their total home runs are solo blasts, they are actually in the middle of the pack in the NL Central in that regard. The Reds (70.3 percent) and Brewers (70.7) each hit a larger percentage of solo home runs than the Pirates.
Sacrificial lambs with runner on third
One of the greatest fundamentals of the game has eluded the Pirates for the better part of the season.
Entering this weekend, the Pirates ranked last in the major leagues with 12 sacrifice flies. The Los Angeles Angels had the most, with 43.
Heading into this weekend, the Pirates' most recent sacrifice fly came June 14, when Neil Walker hit pop fly that Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez caught in foul territory, allowing McCutchen to score. The most recent sacrifice fly hit to an outfielder came May 27.
"It's not a stat that I keep track of, but it would probably be one of the longest droughts I've had on a club, either as a player, manager or coach," Hurdle said.
With a runner on third, the batter's approach can change with the opponent's defensive positioning.
If the infield is in, the batter is to look for a ball up in the zone to try to drive it into the outfield. If the infield is back, the batter can look for a ball down in the zone to try to hit in play.
Hurdle said the Pirates have had their chances to look to drive a ball into the outfield with a runner on third.
"It's missing opportunities," he said. "There's a substantial amount of opportunities there, and it hasn't been cashed in."
First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM