PITTSBURGH (AP) Jordy Mercer and Pedro Alvarez were on the way to their lockers to savor another improbable comeback late Sunday night when the Pittsburgh Pirates teammates stopped in unison in front of one of the half-dozen large-screen televisions in the clubhouse.
They stood, grins glued in place, to relive Gregory Polanco's walkoff single that lifted the Pirates to a 6-5, 10-inning win over St. Louis, a victory that brought Pittsburgh to within just 2 1/2 games of the once seemingly uncatchable Cardinals. After seeing Polanco's soft liner to right fall in front of Jason Heyward to score Jung Ho Kang and give the Pirates their second straight extra-inning win over their rival in as many nights, they laughed while watching the team pour out of the dugout in celebration.
''If people didn't think we're for real, they probably do now,'' Mercer said. ''I just think it's the culture we're trying to create here. We're slowly getting there. Sure we've got ways to go. We know we're heading in the right direction.''
A distant speck in St. Louis' rearview mirror less than three weeks ago, Pittsburgh begins the second half of the season on Friday in Milwaukee looking to carry the momentum from an early summer surge that has them in firm position for a third straight playoff berth.
The giddiness that sprouted from taking three straight from the Cardinals heading into the All-Star break plays in stark contrast to the quiet and puzzled clubhouse of early May, when star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen called himself out for being ''under mediocre'' and manager Clint Hurdle publicly challenged his players after the Pirates slogged through the opening quarter of the season four games under .500. Pittsburgh is an MLB-best 35-13 since.
''If we play with the mindset that if we play our best baseball, we can get what we want to get done done, we can go where we want to go,'' Hurdle said. ''There's a lot of baseball to be played and the season is going to bring you a lot of different things. We've got to stay focused on the game we're playing that day.''
The novelty of winning has worn off in Pittsburgh after two decades of misery. Hurdle likes to say he is ''easy to please but hard to satisfy.'' He would rather replace the high-wire act that comes with making the postseason as a wild card - which the Pirates have done each of the last two Octobers - with an NL Central title and that assurance of a spot in the division series.
So would his team.
''We're in a good place right now,'' pitcher Francisco Liriano said. ''We're playing good baseball. We've been playing good baseball all year. We continue to play the way we're playing, we'll be OK in the end.''
The Pirates have been blessed with dominant starting pitching and a remarkably good health. While third baseman Josh Harrison is out until at least the end of August after undergoing surgery on his left thumb, his loss has been offset a bit by the rapid maturation of Kang, a rookie who is the first position player to make a direct jump from the Korean Baseball Organization to the majors.
Though McCutchen has been steady as usual - hitting .297 with four homers and 14 RBIs over the last month - he's not doing it alone. Starling Marte is on pace for 90-plus RBIs. Neil Walker is batting .345 since June 19 and catcher Francisco Cervelli has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations after Russell Martin left for Toronto and $82 million in the offseason.
When McCutchen's career-best 18-game hitting streak ended Sunday, Marte, Kang and the rest of the Pirates scrabbled together to erase a 5-3 deficit in the 10th off St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. Pittsburgh entered the break with the second-best record in the majors and more than a little bit of swagger.
''It's not just one guy coming up with big hits, big plays, it's a bunch of us,'' Mercer said.
How much larger that group will grow over the next three months is uncertain. General manager Neal Huntington remains fiscally pragmatic about the prospect of adding a significant piece before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, calling the current climate one of the toughest seller's markets he's seen. The move toward rebuilding teams asking for established major leaguers or prospects in the high minors in exchange for proven veterans means the Pirates likely have fewer chips to throw in should they get in the mix for the bold-faced names they have largely avoided.
Either way, they expect to be there in the end. The anxiousness of early spring has disappeared. Another exciting fall awaits.
''There are so many games left, anything can happen,'' Mercer said.