If baseball's 162-game season is a marathon, as players and managers often say, the Pirates just hit the 13.1-mile mark in first place with no sign of slowing down.
The Pirates claimed their 45th victory in the 81st game of the season Wednesday afternoon, beating the Houston Astros, 6-4, in front of a sellout crowd at PNC Park.
"It hasn't all been high fives and walkoffs and giggles," manager Clint Hurdle said.
No, it hasn't. The offense labored through the first two months of the season, putting up dismal numbers while scraping together enough wins to keep close to the top of the standings in the National League Central Division.
More than half the wins -- 23 -- have been comeback victories, including the one Wednesday. There have been significant injuries to the pitching staff that forced team management to be creative. But here the Pirates sit at the halfway point, 20 years after their most recent winning campaign, nine games over .500, in first place in the Central and overflowing with momentum.
Recent history, though, has tempered the excitement. The Pirates are cautiously optimistic, emphasis on the caution.
"It's a long race," reliever Jason Grilli said. "It's not how you start. It's how you finish. The feeling is good, and it's real good. There's no denying that."
The Pirates were 41-40 through 81 games last season, eventually climbing to seven games above .500 before collapsing.
"We still have a lot of baseball left to play, but to be in this situation, to be where we're at right now is obviously a good feeling," shortstop Clint Barmes said. "The second half, coming back from the All-Star break, is going to be big.
"I think everyone in here realizes what happened last year."
The team has improved drastically since the start of the season.
After falling behind, 2-0, in the second inning yesterday, the Pirates pounded out three runs in the bottom half of the inning to take a lead they never relinquished.
"There is definitely more confidence in the dugout now throughout the game," Hurdle said. "From the top of the lineup, everybody feels as though they can be a part of an inning."
They got contributions from backup catcher Michael McKenry, whose hot streak is stretching into its third week. In his past nine games, McKenry is hitting .419 with 11 RBIs and six extra-base hits. He went 2 for 3 with two RBIs and a double Wednesday.
Pedro Alvarez gave the Pirates some insurance in the seventh with a bases-loaded single that scored two runs to make it 6-4. In 12 career at-bats with the bases loaded, Alvarez is hitting .667 with 23 RBIs.
Less than three weeks ago, Alvarez was stuck in a slump and had several fans and critics calling for his demotion to the minor leagues.
"There weren't a lot of 'Pedro for Mayor' signs being hung up in the ballpark," Hurdle said Saturday in St. Louis.
Wednesday, one was draped from the railing in Section 310.
Starter Kevin Correia pitched six strong innings, allowing three earned runs and six hits with a strikeout and a pair of walks.
"We figure it's going to be close the whole way through," Correia said of the Central race. "We have a much better veteran presence on the team this year than we did last year, and I think that will help stabilize us."
Neil Walker made a strong defensive play to protect the late lead against the Astros.
With Brian Bogusevic on second, Jose Altuve smoked a ground ball up the middle. Walker dived to his right to stop it. He didn't keep Altuve from reaching first, but he kept Bogusevic from rounding third.
Reliever Brad Lincoln got Jed Lowrie to ground to third to end the inning with the Pirates leading, 4-3.
Dallas Keuchel took the loss for the Astros (32-50), allowing four earned runs on seven hits in 52/3 innings, the most earned runs he has allowed in four career starts.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and on Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 5, 2012 4:00 AM