PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle and his players are often asked to define the difference between this Pirates team and the one that flirted with contention last season. Their replies center on gained experience and confidence.It is also possible to quantify that difference. Call it 20 Degrees of Separation. In 2011, the Pirates were tied for the National League Central lead on July 25. Twenty games later, they were 57-63 and 13 games out. This June 20, the Pirates were tied for the NL Central lead. Twenty games later, entering Tuesday night's game, they were 43-36, still one step from pulling even with the division-leading Reds. Hurdle acknowledged the scenario. "The way we're playing now, it's nice. We're earning our way," the manager said. But he declined to draw any conclusions from it. "Everyone is looking to write the 'big story' every week," Hurdle said, a reference to media attempts to define the Pirates' renaissance. "But the season will define us. Time will tell if we continue to earn our way. "We're playing for our city, to re-bond it with this team. This city is hungry for a winner; these guys are hungry to win. We take that out there with us every day. But there are a whole bunch of National League teams trying to keep us from there. It's a challenge we've got to embrace the rest of the way." The challenge of Tuesday night's game against Houston gave the Pirates the opportunity to embrace another milestone. A win would move the Bucs eight games above .500 for the first time since the final day of the 1992 season, which the Pirates wrapped at 96-66 on their way into the playoffs.
Presley exits with concussion-like symptoms
PITTSBURGH -- Alex Presley was removed from Tuesday night's game before the fifth inning with concussion-like symptoms resulting from a first-inning defensive play.Playing left field, Presley dove for a drive by Jed Lowrie that went for a base hit. He stayed in the game for two hitless at-bats before being removed as a precaution. Gorkys Hernandez, recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis prior to the game to take Jose Tabata's place on the roster, replaced Presley in left field at the start of the fifth inning.
Pirates opt to promote Hernandez, not Marte
PITTSBURGH -- Jose Tabata's demotion was not surprising. The outfielder's game had developed some yips he now will have a chance to overcome in a less intense environment. So the only mildly surprising part of Tuesday's developments was the choice to replace him: Gorkys Hernandez, and not Starling Marte, who has been burning up the International League.Once again, the Pirates exhibited extreme caution and patience with their top position prospect, the reigning International League Batter of the Week for his .484 average with 13 RBIs through Sunday. Halfway through his first Triple-A season, Marte -- the 2011 Eastern League batting champ -- is batting .291, with 50 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 78 games in Indianapolis. He was recently named to the league's All-Star team. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle implied that the promotion of Marte was at least discussed internally, before the club decided to bring back Hernandez, the supreme defensive player who had his big league baptismal in a May 18-June 5 stint. "We're well aware of what Starling is doing down there," Hurdle said. "He's played center field, he's played left field. We moved him to right field [Monday] night, just so he's going to have experience at all three areas. His development is headed in the right direction." The club does not want to jeopardize that development with rash acceleration. "We both tried to share some experiences with young players," Hurdle said, alluding to general manager Neal Huntington, "where you've been aggressive moving them, and the challenges that have come from that a year or two [later], versus being more patient with players. "Is there ever a perfect equation to follow to get them here right on time, when you know you're 100 percent right? No, there's not," Hurdle added. "But there's a gut feel that you want to give them time, and you don't like to see them have to go through some of the challenges that Pedro [Alvarez] has had to go though, [Alex] Presley had to go though, and what Jose's going though right now."
Regis at root of Pirates' difficult decades?
PITTSBURGH -- The mystery behind 19 years of losing -- and the ongoing resurgence everyone in town hopes will stick -- has possibly been solved.The departure of Barry Bonds? Player-development slump? Fiscal restraints? No, no and no. Regis Philbin. The personable television icon grew up in New York and attended Notre Dame but, somewhere along the way, became a huge Pirates booster. Whenever the Bucs would go on a mild streak, Philbin would begin trumpeting that they were on their way to the World Series.
"I've been a Pirates fan all my life," Philbin said on local radio station 973TheFan last September. "And so I've been keeping my eye on them for years and years and years, and I hate the fact that year after year they're destined to be last, you know, and get beat up by everybody. I tried to pull them through, and I had them in first place in July. And then of course, you know, they threw it away. "Like Gabriel bringing down the walls of Jericho, Philbin's trumpet would bring down the Bucs. Regis is now retired, being off the air for the first time since the invention of television. So the Pirates could be safe. Aware of his allegiance, the club often tried to lure Philbin to PNC Park to throw out the first pitch prior to a Pirates game, without success. If the Bucs qualify for the postseason, perhaps Philbin will finally do the honors before Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
The nine extra-base hits included in Monday night's 18-hit attack were the Pirates' most since notching the same number on July 22, 2009, against the Brewers. In 22 games during the month of April, the Pirates scored a total of 58 runs. In their last eight games, prior to Tuesday, the Bucs scored 59 runs.
Joel Hanrahan has blown three saves, and the Bucs immediately fought back all three times with walk-off wins to give him the decision -- May 8 versus the Nationals and June 7 versus the Reds prior to Tuesday night's 8-7 win over the Astros. When someone noted that was likely how reliever Elroy Face posted his 18-1 record with the 1959 Bucs, Hanrahan (4-0) said, "I don't like wins, I want saves." Assured of at least a split of this four-game set with the Astros, the Pirates will remain with only one losing series in their last 12. For the first time since early in the 2006 season, the Pirates have scored four-plus runs in eight consecutive games.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.