The Pirates, as a franchise, still have many miles to cover to field a competitive lineup, not the least of which is some semblance of a solid heart of the order.
But Nos. 1 and 2?
Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are packing quite the punch there, as was seen again in the 6-3 victory against the San Francisco Giants Saturday night at PNC Park: McCutchen homered, doubled twice and singled to raise his average to .322, and Walker tripled, singled and walked to raise his fledgling figure to .359.
In the six games since manager John Russell placed them atop the order May 29, they are batting a stirring .395 -- 17 for 43 -- with a .469 on-base percentage, three home runs, a triple, four doubles, seven RBIs, six walks and two steals.
"Those guys are really doing a nice job, Andrew and Neil," Russell said. "They've really given us a boost up there, and Ryan was up there for the night, too, and did the job, too."
The man moved back to No. 3 for the night, Ryan Doumit, had a home run and double. And he seemed to appreciate what was in front of him as much as the SkyBlast sellout crowd of 36,687.
"It's a lot of fun with those guys up there," Doumit said. "They're always in base, always in scoring position, it seems."
Game: Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (0-3, 4.26) vs. RHP Tim Lincecum (5-2, 3.14).
Key matchup: Lincecum vs. his recent struggles. Yes, really. In his past three starts, the reigning Cy Young winner has given up 15 runs and 15 walks in 15 1/3 innings, not once getting through the sixth.
Of note: Pirates reliever Brendan Donnelly has yet to give up a run in nine appearances at PNC Park.
Paul Maholm pitched 6 1/3 solid innings -- two runs, six hits -- and closer Octavio Dotel needed help from a hair-raising catch by Lastings Milledge to rob the Giants' Freddy Sanchez for the final out. But none of that would have mattered much if not for the team's biggest offensive output since May 18. And little of that would have been possible if not for the new 1-2.
"Like he goes, I go," Walker said of McCutchen. "The best thing about Andrew is that, when he gets on, he's a stolen-base threat, and I see more fastballs in those situations. It's been great so far."
For McCutchen's part, he was productive at No. 3, too, but he acknowledged after this one that his preference is at the top.
"I feel like I can do a lot from the leadoff spot," McCutchen said. "I can start thing off. I can get on base. I can steal bases. I can hit doubles. I can hit a home run. I just feel like I can do a lot more compared to the three-hole. I enjoy it, and I'm trying to take advantage of it."
Individually, McCutchen now has reached base safely in 17 consecutive games, and Walker ??? well, that story grows by the day, so look, instead, at his defense: He has made every play at second base and, in what might be the most striking contrast from his predecessor, Aki Iwamura, has been seamless in turning the double play.
"You can see that Neil looks really comfortable doing that," Russell said.
That was true even when Sanchez came at him hard on a 5-4-3 double play in the fourth.
"I'm kind of adjusting on the fly," Walker said. "The basic stuff, the catching, throwing, positioning, it's starting to become second nature to me."
San Francisco starter Todd Wellemeyer entered with disastrous split statistics between home and road -- 2.97 ERA by the Bay, 9.35 everywhere else -- and the Pirates made that stay in place by hitting for a neat team cycle in the third inning: McCutchen doubled to deep center, Walker tripled to the same spot, Doumit launched a 2-2 slider over the Clemente Wall for his sixth home run that made it 4-0, and Garrett Jones rolled one through the right side, all in rapid succession.
Wellemeyer left the bases loaded that inning, but he would not record an out in the fourth: McCutchen ripped a 1-1 fastball into the bleachers for his seventh home run and the first at PNC, and Wellemeyer was out after Walker's walk and Doumit's RBI double that made it 6-0.
Maholm's victory was the first for anyone in the rotation since May 18, when Zach Duke beat Roy Halladay in Philadelphia, and it continued a consistent string of starts for him.
"I'm just trying to go deep into games, use my sinker and change like I did tonight, change speeds, get ahead," Maholm said.
A 6-2 lead was handed to Dotel, who has been superb for a month but stumbled in this one by giving up two hits, two walks and a run to bring Sanchez to the plate with two outs and the tying run aboard.
That looked scarier still when Sanchez drilled a Dotel slider deep to left. But Milledge turned and tracked it, never taking his eye off the ball even as he sprinted toward the track, then dived into the dirt to catch it.
Still laying there, he smiled broadly as he raised the ball with his bare hand to show the umpire, as the crowd leaped and roared.
"I knew I could catch it," Milledge said. "I just didn't know if I was going to run out of the room, if I'd have to dive or not."
Russell first exhaled loudly when asked about the catch.
"It was exciting, I'll say that. I'm sure Octavio's going to buy dinner for him."
"It was a great play," he said. "And we won the game. I'll take the same thing in the next game, with the same lead and the same defense behind me."
Sanchez could not have hit the ball much harder and appeared a lock for the sixth hit in two games of his homecoming series, but ..
"It's a game of inches," Sanchez said. "Another inch, maybe, and it's off his glove."
The Pirates can take the three-game series today, but it will be a tall order against Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.