Here is a surprisingly pertinent question to follow the Pirates' thorough 6-2 stifling of the Kansas City Royals last night at PNC Park, one highlighted by Delwyn Young's three-run home run: Anyone looked at the standings lately?
Sure, the Pirates are still in last place.
Equally sure, few expect them to emerge far from that spot, if at all, the rest of this summer.
Still, as outfielder Nyjer Morgan put it in a noisy clubhouse following a fourth consecutive victory ...
"Man, we're five games out," Morgan said. "The pieces are here, I'm telling you. We can do this."
That remains to be seen, obviously, and skepticism will -- and should, given the Pirates' miserable recent history -- remain high.
But the facts are these: At 35-39, they trail the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals by five games in the airtight Central Division. And that is their best position in the standings this late in any season through these 16-plus years of losing with the exception of 1997, when they were two games out on the same date that year.
Does the general manager know?
• Game: Pirates vs. Kansas City Royals, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Charlie Morton (0-0, 3.00) vs. RHP Zack Greinke (9-3, 1.90).
• Key matchup: No reason for the Pirates to fear the brilliant Greinke. Not after they have won games started by Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Jair Jurrjens, Wandy Rodriguez, Johnny Cueto, Mark Buehrle and, most recently, Cliff Lee.
• Of note: The Pirates now are 11-1 in front of home crowds of 20,000-plus, 4-0 in front of 30,000-plus.
"Absolutely, we've got a reason to look at the standings," Neal Huntington said, smiling after the game. "And we're five out in the wild card, too, even though we're ninth there."
How about the manager?
"Sure," John Russell said. "You look at this game we just played, and we're just going out and doing our thing. We're not fixated on the standings, but we watch. We were counted out ... what, back in December? So, it's a good thing for us. We'll stay under the radar, keep winning and make things interesting."
Some players were aware of the standings, some not.
"Yeah, I know," closer Matt Capps said. "There's a long way to go. But, if you'd have told me back in the spring we'd be five games out, would I take it? Absolutely. And you know what? We've got a good team. We haven't caught some breaks, but we're seeing a lot of pieces coming together."
"I didn't realize it, to tell you the truth," reliever Sean Burnett said. "But hey, that sounds good to me. Five back is five back, whether you're in second or sixth. If we keep playing well, we can sneak up on all of them."
The keys in this were Young's four RBIs, Paul Maholm's seven solid innings, and two hits each from Freddy Sanchez, Andy LaRoche and Jack Wilson, all to the clear delight of the near-sellout crowd of 36,032.
Maholm improved to 5-4 by limiting Kansas City to two runs and five hits. He had one win in his previous 11 starts and a 6.38 ERA in June, mostly because his signature sinker had all but deserted him. Not this time: He got 10 of his 27 outs via ground ball and, after a shaky opening, most of that came from the sinker.
"It was a matter of going to the bullpen, throwing it over and over, getting my rhythm back," Maholm said. "We made sure the mechanics and arm angle were consistent."
Sounds like he got the arm tired, too, which is supposed to help a sinker.
"Yeah," Maholm said with a laugh. "That's how I like it, get the arm feeling dead."
The Royals took a 2-0 lead through three, and the Pirates, facing freshly recalled journeyman Bruce Chen, figured to be in trouble: Chen had not pitched in Major League Baseball since 2007 and, in his previous 45 games at the top level, was 0-7 with a 6.95 ERA.
Exactly the type of opponent giving the Pirates fits all season.
Alas, it took one rapid-fire sequence in the fourth to render that moot: Sanchez and Adam LaRoche singled, and Young extended his arms to lift Chen's 1-1 painfully harmless changeup -- just 76 mph and flat as a board -- beyond the fence in center for his second home run.
"I was looking for a fastball, he threw a changeup that sat there, and I was able to get good wood on it," Young said. "I didn't think it was going to leave, but it did."
"I didn't think it was that bad of a pitch," Chen said. "He hit it over the fence."
Young, batting .415 in his past 11 starts, .337 overall, appears to be forcing Russell to use him ahead of Brandon Moss, even though Moss has upgraded his game.
"Delwyn continues to do very well, and he definitely had a great night," Russell said. "It's a nice problem to have, with Brandon swinging a nice bat. We'll keep mixing and matching."
The Pirates went ahead, 4-2, in the seventh when Andy LaRoche tripled and, with two outs, Wilson singled him home off fresh reliever Roman Colon. And they put it away in the next inning on Adam LaRoche's RBI double and Young's RBI single.
A victory today against Kansas City ace Zack Greinke would bring the Pirates their third series sweep of the season.
They already clinched their second winning interleague record, improving to 8-6. In 2001, they were 8-7.