According to Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' first half was the best form of preparation for their second.
"Nothing changes," McCutchen said. "The game doesn't change. Situations may change, all that may change. The game itself doesn't change, and that's what we have to remember as a team is that you can't let all of the numbers and that stuff get to you."
McCutchen and the other four Pirates All-Stars hardly had a break before traveling to Cincinnati, where they begin a three-game series tonight against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. The series opens a tough stretch that covers the rest of July.
The Cincinnati series fronts a 10-game road trip that takes the Pirates to Washington, for four games against the Nationals, a talented but underachieving club. They finish the trip with three games against the last-place Miami Marlins.
Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:10 p.m., Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).
LHP Francisco Liriano (9-3, 2.00 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Leake (8-4, 2.69).
- Key matchup:
Leake vs. Garrett Jones, who is 12 for 37 against Leake.
- Hidden stat:
Leake's four-walk outing in his final first-half start broke a stretch of eight starts in which he allowed no walks or one walk.
After that, they return home for a five-game series against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals that coincides with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Pirates play 14 of their final 69 games against the Cardinals.
Of those 69 games, 33 of them come against teams that currently have winning records compared to 36 against those with losing records.
"You put pressure on yourself by looking at the standings," McCutchen said. "Oh, did they win? Oh, did they lose? Oh, we got to win because they won.
"Putting that small pressure on yourself when you look at that stuff. As long as we just go out and keep playing like it's the first game of the season, I think we'll be OK."
The 56 wins the Pirates compiled before the All-Star break means they need 26 more, or a 26-43 record down the stretch, to finish with 82 and break the 20-year streak of losing seasons. Their goals are higher than that: reliever Mark Melancon said not reaching the playoffs would be "devastating."
"We're aware of the .500 mark drought and all that stuff but we try not to pay any attention to that," Pedro Alvarez said. "We just go out there to have fun and play to the best of our abilities."
Every team that made the playoffs in 2012 had at least 88 wins.
The schedule becomes easier once August begins. Six series against five teams with losing records -- the Colorado Rockies, Marlins, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers -- sandwich a six-game stretch against the Cardinals and first-place Arizona Diamondbacks in the middle of the month.
A nine-game road trip including stops in St. Louis and Texas for an interleague series against the Rangers starts September. The Pirates finish the regular season with a three-game road series against the Reds that could drip with divisional and wild-card implications.
The Pirates are in the mood to buy at the trade deadline. Their offense, ranked 12th in the National League with 3.84 runs scored per game, seems a logical unit to upgrade.
An ESPN report indicated the Pirates expressed interest in Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, a former MVP. The Chicago Tribune reported recently that the White Sox's Alex Rios and the Cubs' Nate Schierholtz could interest the Pirates.
First come the Reds. Francisco Liriano gets the first crack at them after allowing two runs and eight hits in his final 16 innings of the first half. A.J. Burnett will follow, and Jeff Locke, expected to move past the back pain that caused him to miss his final first-half start, will pitch Sunday.
As McCutchen tries to in most situations, he again kept the Pirates' checkpoints for continuing their success simple.
"If we're 19 games over .500 in the second half," McCutchen said, "I think we'll be all right."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published July 19, 2013 4:00 AM