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Pregame: Business as usual

green_weenieHOUSTON — It might surprise you to know that the Pirates were NOT huddled around the flat-screen TV last night in their clubhouse, anxiously waiting to hear if the Rockies had bumped off the Brewers to rearrange the NL Central standings.

There was some whooping when MLB Network showed highlights of the Reds’ walkoff win against the Cards. But by the time the Rox nailed down their win, some of the Pirates had showered and were on their way back to the hotel. A handful were gathered in the cafeteria and were watching highlights on the TV there.

The Pirates greeted their first minutes as the division co-leader (they’re tied with the Cards, but technically they are a few percentage points ahead) with a business-like approach. “We’re keeping things where they need to be,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You’ve heard it since Opening Day, we just need to play our game. We need to continue to prepare and focus the way we are, and we’ll see where it takes us. We’ve got a long ride in front of us.”

»»» I’m guessing everyone’s favorite non-Pirates player today is Brandon Phillips. He certainly was popular last night in the clubhouse.

»»» Jeff Karstens now ranks third in the NL with a 2.34 ERA. He’s averaging 14.01 pitches per inning, the second-lowest rate in the majors (Rays righty James Shields averages 13.96).

»»» Andrew McCutchen has 15 RBI this month, which is tied with Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre for tops in the majors. McCutchen also is tied with Beltre, Mark Ellis and Pablo Sandoval with 10 extra-base hits in July. “Cutch is swinging the bat maybe as well as he ever has,” Hurdle said. “He’s in such a good place right now at the plate. He’s seeing the ball good, he’s getting good looks, he’s hitting the ball hard where it’s pitched.”

»»» Catcher Jason Jaramillo (elbow) is on a rehab assingment with Bradenton of the rookie level Gulf Coast League. He’s played in six games and is 5 for 23. More importantly, JJ has been able to get back behind the plate. As soon as Jaramillo is game-ready, expect him to replace Eric Fryer on the Pirates’ active roster.

»»» Outfielder Jose Hernandez, a 23rd-round pick in 2009, released from Double-A Altoona. He was replaced by infielder Yunesky Sanchez.

»»» Remember pitcher Wardell Starling? A draft-and-follow pick as a fourth-rounder in 2002, Starling made it as high as Double-A Altoona in 2006 and ’07. He’s bounced around independent leagues since then, and this week signed with the Bridegeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League.

Lineups for today’s game:

Pirates (48-43) – 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Chase d’Arnaud ss, 3. Neil Walker 2b, 4. Andrew McCutchen cf, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Lyle Overbay 1b, 7. Brandon Wood 3b, 8. Mike McKenry c, 9. Paul Maholm lhp (6-9, 2.96)

Astros (30-63) – 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Angel Sanchez 3b, 3. Jeff Keppinger 2b, 4. Hunter Pence rf, 5. Carlos Lee lf, 6. Jason Michaels lf, 7. Clint Barmes ss, 8. Humberto Quintero c, 9. Bud Norris rhp (5-6, 3.46)

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