If you're searching for a sign that this year is, indeed, different, maybe the Pirates flashed it in a 4-2 loss Sunday to the New York Mets.
For a third consecutive season, the Pirates (56-37) will head into the All-Star break with a winning record. Only this time, they won't enter the break on a winning streak.
After winning in spectacular fashion in the Sundays ahead of the 2011 and 2012 All-Star breaks, the Pirates offense struggled to climb out of an early hole against New York at PNC Park. But the loss did little to quiet the confidence this team has in its ability to fight back a second-half fade when they have failed the past two seasons.
In his pre-break address to the team, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told players to take the next four days to unwind before attacking the second half. He said that message took a different tone than it had the past two seasons.
"It's a different group," Hurdle said. "We've grown together. We've learned together. Taken some lumps together. We've enjoyed some success together. They're in a good spot."
He spoke to his players ahead of the game, in case any had to quickly dart away from PNC Park to catch flights home or elsewhere.
"It was a business-as-usual-type of feel, I guess," said second baseman Neil Walker, who sat through Hurdle's pre-break address in each of the past three seasons.
There was little back-patting after the team's best first half since 1971. After the struggles of the past two seasons, there is a good understanding of the work that still remains for this team.
"They don't celebrate half seasons," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We want to make sure we position ourselves to celebrate a full season and hopefully a postseason."
There are bigger -- and better -- signs than their loss Sunday that the Pirates might have what it takes to undo 20 years of futility. For one, they are 19 games over .500 at the break. They were nine games over in 2012 and four games over in 2011.
And there is more experience and more confidence than younger Pirates clubs possessed the past couple of seasons.
"There's really no panic," catcher Michael McKenry said. "At times, you feel that with a young team. At times, the last two years since I've been here, you've felt that panic. Here, there are guys that know they're going to have a better half than they did the first half, and there are guys that are going to continue to grow, just a little bit more."
There were no signs of panic or frustration in the Pirates clubhouse. They finish the first half with an 18-9-4 record in series this season, including their series win this past weekend against New York.
The Mets (41-50) rattled Pirates starter Gerrit Cole early, scoring three runs off of Cole in the game's first inning. It was the second time in seven career starts that Cole has been tagged for three runs before his team got a chance to bat.
He has a 7.71 first-inning ERA.
"I should probably think about that," Cole said.
He surrendered two RBI hits in the inning with a 1-2 count -- a pitcher's count -- against both batters.
"We're not going to overthink this thing, we're not going to overcook this thing," Hurdle said. "His command wasn't what it needs to be coming into the game."
A ninth-inning rally fell short for the Pirates, who had runners on first and second with one out and Mets closer Bobby Parnell on the mound. Parnell got Starling Marte to fly out to center and Jordy Mercer to fly out to right to end the game.
New York starter Dillon Gee moved quickly through the Pirates lineup, allowing one unearned run on five hits in 62/3 innings. He struck out two and walked one on 105 pitches.
Cole yielded three earned runs in his shortest outing of the season, allowing six hits in five innings. He struck out five and walked two.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 14, 2013 8:45 PM