Surprising Pirates begin second half

Pittsburgh (48-37) at Milwaukee (40-45), 8:10 p.m. EDT

The Pittsburgh Pirates exit the All-Star break in first place for the first time in 15 years.

It’s been significantly longer since the last time a pitcher started three consecutive major league games, something Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke will achieve in the Brewers’ second-half opener.

The Pirates look to continue their march toward a division title Friday night when they open a three-game set against Greinke at Miller Park.

Pittsburgh (48-37) is in the midst of a North American professional sports record of 19 consecutive losing seasons, but there’s reason to believe that ugly streak could be coming to an end. The Pirates are 11 games over .500 for the first time since 1992 – the year of their last playoff berth – and are in first place at the break for the first time since ’97.

“Everyone looks at Pittsburgh as a team you can come in and beat,” scheduled starter James McDonald told the Pirates’ official website. “We’re here to let guys know we’re competitors, we’re here to be good for a while.”

The Pirates, one game ahead of second-place Cincinnati, are also hoping to avoid a similar late-season free fall as last year, when they were atop the Central on July 25, before finishing 24 games out.

“We’ve got a lot of games left,” Garrett Jones said. “But our confidence is high, and we want to keep that going, keep putting W’s on the board.”

Two of the biggest reasons Pittsburgh is piling up wins is the play of All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and McDonald (9-3, 2.37 ERA).

McCutchen – one of the top candidates for league MVP – leads the majors in batting at .362, is tied for fourth in the NL in homers with 18 and is tied for third in the league in RBIs with 60.

Reigning league MVP Ryan Braun has an NL-best 24 homers, is second with 61 RBIs and is hitting .306.

McCutchen hit .553 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in his final nine games before the break with the Pirates winning eight times.

He is 2 for 13 lifetime against Greinke, who will become the first pitcher to start three consecutive games since Red Faber for the Chicago White Sox in 1917. Greinke’s name will be forever linked to this baseball oddity after he was ejected from his start Saturday following a four-pitch outing and coming back the next day. Against Houston on Sunday, the right-hander allowed three runs and five hits in three innings of a 10-inning, 5-3 win.

Greinke went 3-1 despite a 5.76 ERA in four starts against the Pirates last season.

Pittsburgh has won seven of McDonald’s last eight starts with the right-hander earning the victory in the last four. McDonald, who despite ranking third in the NL in ERA was bypassed for the All-Star game, put together one of his best performances of the season in his final outing before the break, yielding a run and four hits while striking out 10 in seven innings of a 3-1 victory over San Francisco on July 7.

He gave up three runs and four hits with eight strikeouts over six innings in a 6-5 win in Milwaukee on June 3, helping the Pirates take two of three in their lone series of the season.

While Pittsburgh is brimming with confidence, the Brewers (40-45) need to go on quite a surge to repeat as division champs. They’re eight games behind Pittsburgh, but could have the advantage Friday considering they’ve won 21 of Greinke’s 22 regular-season starts at Miller Park.

“We still have time,” Greinke told the Brewers’ official website. “And hopefully that will take care of it.”

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