The drought is over

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ST. LOUIS — The Pirates have homered in seven straight games, their longest streak since Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2010. If they go deep twice today, they will shatter the franchise record of 39 home runs in June and extend their string to eight games for the first time since June 10-19, 2008. It is, as someone pointed out this morning to manager Clint Hurdle, an astronomical pace.

“The pace for the first two months was astronomical as well,” Hurdle said. “That’s the context I keep it in. You spread it over three months and it all makes sense. You package it into one month, and you go, ‘Whoa!’ But so does the two-month drought before. For me, it was going to come. I believed it would come. It’s come this month — hard and heavy. But there was a dought for the first two months.”

»»» RHP Brad Lincoln will not be available out of the bullpen today and tomorrow. Hurdle would prefer to use Lincoln only in two- or three-inning outings to keep him stretched out in case they need a spot start.

»»» The Pirates have won 10 of their past 13 games against NL Central foes.

»»» Pedro Alvarez has hit 11 of his 14 home runs in day games. Over his past three road day games, he is 6 for 11, including five homers, with 10 RBI.

»»» Neil Walker has collected 116 RBI since the start of the 2011 season. That’s the fifth-most RBI in that span among all second basemen and second-most in the NL behind Brandon Phillips (128 RBI).

Game 77: Pirates @ Cardinals 1:15 p.m. ET

Pirates (41-35): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Jose Tabata rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Clint Barmes ss, 8. Michael McKenry c, 9. Jeff Karstens rhp (0-2, 6.35)

Cardinals (40-37): 1. Skip Schumaker 2b, 2. Jon Jay cf, 3. Matt Holliday lf, 4. Carlos Beltran rf, 5. Allen Craig 1b, 6. David Freese 3b, 7. Daniel Descalso ss, 8. Tony Cruz c, 9. Lance Lynn rhp (10-3, 3.23)

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Will lack of pub hurt JMac’s chances?

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ST. LOUIS — During a conference call the other day, I made a point of asking John Smoltz and Cal Ripken Jr. whether they thought A.J. Burnett and James McDonald were legit All-Star candidates. Neither former standout hesitated to endore Burnett, whose comeback is one of the best stories in baseball this summer. “I think A.J., after all that he’d been through in New York, has gone to Pittsburgh and gotten back to some of the expectations we had for him earlier in his career,” Smoltz said.

Smoltz and Ripken both had good things to say about McDonald, but it was clear neither knew much about him. “I haven’t seen James McDonald pitch a whole lot,” Ripken confessed. “Looking at his overall numbers from a distance, he’s somebody who doesn’t give up walks and doesn’t give up many hits. He’s very deserving of pitching in the All-Star Game, just based on his stats alone.” Smoltz offered this: “I’ve been so impressed by James McDonald and by the progress he’s made in a short time.” But he did not offer any specifics.

I’m not saying McDonald won’t get an All-Star bid. Certainly, both he and Burnett are deserving. However, the lack of national recognition could hurt McDonald’s chances when manager Tony LaRussa fills out his roster.

»»» Saturday’s game will start at 2:15 p.m. ET. There was no truth to rumors that it would be changed due to the heat wave. As I type this at 6 pm ET, the Cards are taking BP and the temp on the field is 102 degrees.

»»» Burnett has won each of his past eight starts, allowing 13 runs over 50 innings. Only two other pitchers in major league history have won eight straight starts while tossing 50 or fewer innings. Jeremy Bonderman threw 49 innings in 2007 for the Tigers and Barry Zito threw 50 innings during his eight-game run in 2001 for the A’s.

»»» The Pirates will offer up to four free tickets to active duty personnel and veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces for Wednesday’s game against the Astros. Tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. To claim tickets, bring a military ID to the ticket office at PNC Park from now until Tuesday. On game day, a special military ticket booth on Federal Street will open at 11:30 a.m.

Game 76: Pirates @ Cardinals 8:05 p.m. ET

Pirates (40-35): 1. Drew Sutton lf, 2. Jose Tabata rf, 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Neil Walker 2b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Rod Barajas c, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Kevin Correia rhp (3-6, 4.03)

Cardinals (40-36): 1. Rafael Furcal ss, 2. Jon Jay cf, 3. Matt Holliday lf, 4. Carlos Beltran rf, 5. Allen Craig 1b, 6. Yadier Molina c, 7. David Freese 3b, 8. Daniel Descalso 2b, 9. Adam Wainwright rhp (6-7, 4.32)

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Let’s (try to) make a deal

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CLEVELAND — Most teams have yet to decide whether they are buyers or sellers, which has retarded the trade market this year. “We’ve been engaged with other clubs for the last six weeks, but there’s no traction anywhere,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “The extra wild card has added time for everybody. With each passing week, we’re getting closer to the spot where teams evaluate their own rosters and decide, is it sooner or is it later? It’s challenging and it always will be. The hard part is, we’re not the only club looking for specific things. There are a lot of teams in the same situations.” Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington plan to huddle sometime in the next few days to reassess the Pirates’ needs and target certain players that might be available.

»»» Trivia: A.J. Burnett is the first Pirates pitcher to win seven straight starts since Doug Drabek in 1990. Who’s the last Pirate to win eight in a row?

»»» Pedro Alvarez has 10 home runs, which ranks third among NL third basemen behind David Freese (13) and Hanley Ramirez (11).

»»» The Pirates will bus back to Pittsburgh after today’s game.

»»» Hurdle wants the Pirates to be known as a running club. “We’re not there yet, but we’re gonna get there if it kills me,” he said. “It’s an important part of our identity moving forward that we are a team that will move on the bases. It helps the mentality and puts more pressure on the defense. Guys know they’ve got to catch it and get it in the air. There’s no time for bobbles, misses or clanks. I want one of the first things on the scouting report to be, ‘These guys are going to move on the bases. We’ve got to be sharp and handle the ball.’ ” The Pirates have stolen 12 bases in the past eight games and 17 this month, which is second behind the Dodgers (18). “I played on two clubs that were get up and go,” said Hurdle, referring to the Royals and Cardinals under Whitey Herzog. “I was one of the slower guys on the team, but I still was encouraged to run, take the extra base, hustle doubles. We had guys who ran, who weren’t runners. Then they’d go someplace else and wouldn’t steal at all.”

»»» RHP Brad Lincoln will have at least one more spot start after today before Jeff Karstens is ready to come off the DL. Hurdle said he doesn’t want Lincoln to try to pace himself, as he did in his past couple starts, trying to get deeper into the game. “Brad needs to pitch well. That’s the focus,” Hurdle said. “The last two starts, we haven’t seen the guy we saw earlier in the season. He’s been encouraged to go out there today and give us everything he’s got for as long as he’s got. There’s no pace. We’ve got a day off tomorrow and a full bullpen. Get after it. As hard as you can for as long as you can. Nobody wants to be the weakest link, so he’s thinking, ‘I don’t want to gas it out, pitch three innings and then you’ve got to go to the bullpen for six. I understand that. But we talked to him in Baltimore and told him, ‘We’re best served by you just getting after it. Let’s reignite that fastball we saw for the first seven weeks of the season, the movement on the fastball, the depth and tilt to the slider.’ ”

»»» Trivia answer: Dock Ellis won eight straight starts in 1974.

Game 64: Pirates @ Indians, 1:05 p.m. ET

Pirates (33-31): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Casey McGehee 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Matt Hague dh, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Michael McKenry c. RHP: Brad Lincoln (3-2, 3.15)

Indians (33-31): 1. Shin-Soo Choo rf, 2. Asdrubal Cabrera ss, 3. Jason Kipnis 2b, 4. Jose Lopez dh, 5. Michael Brantley cf, 6. Jack Hannahan 3b, 7. Johnny Damon lf, 8. Casey Kotchman 1b, 9. Lou Marson c. RHP: Jeanmar Gomez (4-5, 4.71)

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Burnett aims to extend streak

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CLEVELAND — A.J. Burnett today will try to win six straight decisions for the first time since July 23 to August 19, 2008, when he won six in a row for the Blue Jays. Coming into today’s game, the only pitchers in the majors with longer active win streaks are R.A. Dickey (eight games), Matt Cain (seven) Robbie Ross (six) and Ryan Vogelsong (six). The last Pirate to win more than five straight decisions was Matt Capps (eight) in 2008. The last Pirates starter to win six straight was Zach Duke in 2005.

»»» Casey McGehee has collected multiple hits in three of his past four games. In those three games, he went 7 for 14, including a double and a homer, with two RBI. In 12 games this month, McGehee’s batting .375 (12 for 32), including three doubles and two homers, with four RBI and five runs scored.

»»» The Pirates are 18-5 in games in which they’ve allowed two or fewer runs. The only NL clubs with more two and under-run games are the Dodgers (27), Nationals (26) and Giants (24).

»»» The Pirates have swiped 11 bases over the past seven games and 16 overall this month. Only the Dodgers (17) have more stolen bags in June. Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata have stolen at least three bases apiece.

»»» If you’re into sabermetrics, or just a big fan of McCutchen’s, be sure to check out this blog entry by TribLive Radio’s own Ken Laird.

Game 64: Pirates @ Indians, 4:05 p.m. ET

Pirates (32-31): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones dh, 5. Casey McGehee 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Jose Tabata rf, 8. Rod Barajas c, 9. Clint Barmes ss. RHP: A.J. Burnett (6-2, 3.61)

Indians (33-30): 1. Shin-Soo Choo rf, 2. Asdrubal Cabrera ss, 3. Jason Kipnis 2b, 4. Carlos Santana c, 5. Michael Brantley cf, 6. Johnny Damon lf, 7. Duncan lf, 8. Casey Kotchman 1b, 9. Lonnie Chisenhall dh. RHP: Ubaldo Jimenez (6-4, 4.91)

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Cole promoted to Altoona

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CLEVELAND — RHP Gerrit Cole today was promoted to Double-A Altoona and will make his Curve debut Wednesday against New Britain (Twins). Cole tossed five scoreless innings last night for High-A Bradenton, which lowered his ERA to 2.55. That’s fourth-best in the Florida State League. He also ranks sixth in strikeouts (69), third in batting average against (.217) among starters and third in strikeouts per nine innings (9.27) in the FSL.

»»» If there’s someone who can stop this skid by Pirates pitchers, it’s James McDonald. The righty has won five of his past six decisions and is ranked eighth among NL pitchers in ERA (2.39) and fourth in batting average against (.200). Starting April 25, when he allowed one run, JMac’s 2.11 ERA ranks fifth in the majors behind RA Dickey (1.36), Chris Sale (1.59), Ryan Vogelsong (2.02) and Matt Cain (2.09).

»»» Joel Hanrahan is one shy of 400 career strikeouts. He also is tied among NL relievers with 17 saves.

»»» Orioles starter Tommy Hunter was not surprised by Steve Pearce’s big performance last night against the Pirates. “I played against him in the minors,” Hunter said. “He was putting up video game numbers.” Pearce went 2 for 4 with a walk, a three-run homer and a career-high five RBI.

Game 63: Pirates @ Indians, 7:05 p.m. ET

Pirates (32-30): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones dh, 5. Casey McGehee 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Jose Tabata rf, 8. Rod Barajas c, 9. Josh Harrison ss. Pitcher: James McDonald rhp (5-2, 2.39)

Indians (32-30): TBA Pitcher: Justin Masterson rhp (2-6, 4.76)

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Pitching depth tested

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BALTIMORE — A year ago, the Pirates were in the midst of a catcher emergency, searching for someone healthy and able to play at the major league level. This year, the pitching depth is being tested.

Jeff Karstens, who’s on the DL due to injuries to his shoulder and hip, is inching closer to rejoining the rotation. But Charlie Morton will be out the rest of the season — and probably longer — due to a torn ligament in his right elbow. Morton likely will need Tommy John surgery, which usually requires at least a year of recovery time. There was a flurry of speculation this morning that LHP Rudy Owens was on his way up to the majors to join the rotation. Not true. For now the plan is to keep Brad Lincoln in the rotation as a spot starter until Karstens is ready to come back.

Speaking of pitching, reliever Daniel McCutchen (strained oblique) today begins his rehab stint with High-A Bradenton.

»»» Sign here, please: OF Barrett Barnes, whom the Pirates drafted 45th overall, agreed to sign for a $1 million bonus, according to Texas Tech SID Scott Lacefield. Barnes’ bonus is $136,000 less than the slot amount. Barnes was taken with a compensation pick, which the Pirates received after losing Ryan Doumit via free agency. He’s flying to Pittsburgh tonight and will sign the contract Friday after having a physical.

»» Fire away: At 7 p.m. Monday, Jason Grilli will take questions during a one-hour “town hall meeting” at concert-oh.com.

»»» Minor matters: INF Stefan Welch, INF Drew Maggi and OF Evan Chambers were promoted to Double-A Altoona. C Miguel Perez was placed on the DL at Altoona. OF Anthony Norman and INF Greg Picart were sent down to short-season A State College.

Game 62: Pirates @ Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET

Pirates (32-29): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones dh, 5. Casey McGehee 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Jose Tabata rf, 8. Rod Barajas c, 9. Clint Barmes ss. Pitcher: Erik Bedard lhp (4-6, 3.59)

Orioles (36-26): 1. Brian Roberts 2b, 2. J.J. Hardy ss, 3. Chris Davis dh, 4. Adam Jones cf, 5. Matt Wieters c, 6. Mark Reynolds 1b, 7. Steve Pearce lf, 8. Steve Tolleson lf, 9. Robert Andino 3b. Pitcher: Tommy Hunter rhp (2-3, 5.40)

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Eight draftees are inked

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BALTIMORE — The Pirates today signed eight draft picks: infielder Eric Wood (sixth round); catcher Jake Stallings (seventh); righties Pat Ludwig (10th), Kyle Haynes (20th) and Lance Breedlove (23rd); and lefties Dalton Friend (12th), Tom Harlan (13th) and Josh Smith (25th). The amounts of signing  bonuses were not revealed, but they’ll leak out over the next couple of days. That raises the total of draftees signed to nine. Wood was assigned to rookie league Bradenton. The others were sent to short-season A State College.

»»» Runners-up: The Phillies are the most popular team in Pennylvania, according to the annual Quinipiac baseball poll released today. The Phils were favored by 48 percent of poll respondents, compared to 25 percent who chose the Pirates. Also listed were the Yankees (8 percent), Orioles (3 percent) and Mets and Red Sox (2 percent apiece). In Allegheny County, 78 percent of those questioned chose the Pirates. Central Pennsylvanians opted for the Phillies over the Pirates, 38 percent to 19 percent. Pollsters queried 1,129 adults.

»»» Stargell stamp: Willie Stargell ranks third among a group of four Hall of Famers honored on stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Since the May 13 release, 5,920 Stargell stamps have been pre-ordered. The leaders are Ted Williams (14,380 stamps) and Joe DiMaggio (10,100). Larry Doby is fourth (4,700). Individual stamp sheets will be sold starting July 31 only in Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, Cleveland and Cooperstown, N.Y.

»»» Familiar face: I stopped by the Orioles clubhouse before the game to say hi to Steve Pearce. He’s only been in Baltimore a few days since his callup and is still learning his way around the ballpark and around town. I asked him how much of a grind it’ll be playing in the AL East against the Yanks, Red Sox, Rays and Jays. “We have the fourth-best record in the majors and we’re in third place in our division. What do you think?” Pearce said with a laugh.

Game 61: Pirates @ Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET

Pirates (32-28): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones dh, 5. Casey McGehee 1b, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Jose Tabata rf, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. Michael McKenry c. Pitcher: Kevin Correia rhp (2-5, 4.29)

Orioles (35-26): 1. Brian Roberts 2b, 2. J.J. Hardy ss, 3. Chris Davis dh, 4. Adam Jones cf, 5. Matt Wieters c, 6. Mark Reynolds 1b, 7. Wilson Betemit 3b, 8. Steve Pearce lf, 9. Ryan Flaherty rf. Pitcher: Jake Arrieta rhp (2-8, 6.32)

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An (almost) brush with the Prez

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BALTIMORE — This afternoon, I made the short walk from the hotel to Camden Yards with Jarred Hughes, Josh Harrison, Garrett Jones and Michael McKenry. As we hiked, a spitting rain turned into a steady drizzle, then a downpour. As we neared the ballpark, we noticed there was not another person in sight … except for a group of Baltimore police officers who had the road blocked off. The did not seem happy to see us. Turns out President Obama was speaking at a nearby hotel and his motorcade was expected to pass by at any moment. “It would be pretty cool to see him,” Hughes said. I didn’t share Hughes’ enthusiasm — partly because I’m a Republican, partly because I was getting soaked and didn’t want to be detoured, and mostly because I was hoping none of us were about to be arrested. Fortunately, the police allowed us to hustle through the barricades and into the ballpark. But the last I saw of Hughes, he was headed the other way, back toward the motocade route. So, if the bullpen is shorthanded tonight, you’ll know why.

»»» Althogh Andrew McCutchen is being mentioned as a possible MVP candidate, it’s not helping his chances of being a starter in the All-Star Game. In voting results released a little while ago by MLB, McCutchen ranked 11th among NL outfielders with 728,522 votes. A week ago, he was ranked 10th with 655,748 votes. Ryan Braun continues to hold down the No. 3 spot among outfielders — and has increased his lead over McCutchen to 824,834 votes, an increase of 169,086 from a week ago.

Game 60: Pirates @ Orioles, 7:10 p.m. ET

Pirates (32-27): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Casey McGehee 1b, 5. Matt Hague dh, 6. Pedro Alvarez 3b, 7. Jose Tabata rf, 8. Rod Barajas c, 9. Clint Barmes ss. Pitcher: Brad Lincoln rhp (3-1, 2.40)

Orioles (34-26): TBA Pitcher: Wei-Yen Chen lhp (5-2, 3.49)

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Who’s on deck?

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Other than the home plate umpire, the guy with the best view of Rod Barajas’ Superman slide last night should have been Erik Bedard. The lefty was on deck at the time, so he was stationed behind the plate to guide Barajas home after Clint Barmes singled … correct?

Actually, no. “I wasn’t even there,” Bedard admitted with a laugh. “I was supposed to be there to tell him whether to slide or (score standing) up, but I forgot. I was still leaning on the rail (near the dugout). I was like, Oh, boy. Oops.” Before you come down too hard on Bedard, remember that he spent his first eight seasons in the AL and had just 20 at-bats coming into this year, so he’s not altogether familiar with the duties on a on-deck batter.

»»» Fast to 30: Last night, the Pirates notched victory No. 30 in their 57th game of the season. That’s faster than in any year since 1992 (their last playoff season), when they did it in 53 games. Recent runners-up: 1999 (58 games) and 1997 (59 games).

»»» Memories: Tonight at Turner Field in Atlanta, the Braves are giving away Sid Bream “The Slide” bobbleheads to celebrate their improbable 1992 NLCS triumph. Tonight at PNC Park, the Pirates also are paying homage to a one-hit wonder from the ’90s by staging a postgame Boyz 2 Men concert.

»»» Full hosue: Tonight’s game will be the fourth sellout of the year at PNC Park.

»»» Minor matter: Stetson Allie almost certainly will begin his career as a position player at rookie level Bradenton, where he will play third base.

Game 58: Royals @ Pirates, 7:05 p.m. ET

Royals (24-32): 1. Alex Gordon lf, 2. Yuniesky Betancourt 2b, 3. Billy Butler 1b, 4. Mike Moustakas 3b, 5. Jeff Francoeur cf, 6. Eric Hosmer rf, 7. Brayan Pena c, 8. Alicedes Escobar ss, 9. Vin Mazzaro rhp (2-0, 2.25)

Pirates (30-27): 1. Alex Presley lf, 2. Neil Walker 2b , 3. Andrew McCutchen cf, 4. Garrett Jones 1b, 5. Pedro Alvarz 3b, 6. Jose Tabata rf, 7. Rod Barajas c, 8. Clint Barmes ss, 9. James McDonald rhp (5-2, 2.14)

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Leyland says Bonds not so tough

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Jim Leyland admits was “in a total fog” immediately after the Pirates’ stunning loss to the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Leyland discussed his time as the Pirates’ manager with Bob Costas in an interview that will air at 2 p.m. Saturday on MLB Network. “The ’92 loss was probably the toughest I’ve ever suffered and it was a very interesting scenario,” Leyland said. “I said it at the time, and I still think about it today, this whole picture flashed in my mind (of) a Little League World Series. It was almost reduced to that, like a Little League game, where one side’s jumping up and down and one side’s crying. It was unbelievable.”

Leyland also had this to say about Barry Bonds: “I saw a lot of good things in Barry. … He’s not as tough as he lets on. I think he’s one of those guys that it was a motivational tool for him to upset people, to make them mad at him. He was coachable and he was manageable. A lot of people didn’t think so, but it depended on how you coached him. Barry was one of those guys where he was very coachable, but you had to let him think it was his idea.”

»»» A group of 83 veterans from the Wounded Warriors Project and their families will be guests of the Pirates at tonight’s game against the Royals. Most of the vets are Marines from K Company, 3rd Battalion, who trained Iraqi security forces and battled insurgents in the Al Anbar Province. Tonight will be the first time many of the Marines have seen each other since returning from their tours of duty in Iraq.

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