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Pirates' road trip could define journey

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

MILWAUKEE — Is the Pirates' best start since their Barry Bonds Era sustainable? Is it more likely than plausible the Pirates win more than they lose for the first time in two decades? These are questions whose answers will become clearer over the next four weeks.

The Pirates began a daunting 26-game stretch Friday in Milwaukee that includes 17 games against clubs in first place or within 1½ games in first place, a period that includes 15 road games, including three at Miller Park where entering Friday, the Pirates have won just eight games and lost 46 since 2007.

If there is a market correction to come for the Pirates, it could come soon.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said a key for the Pirates in sustaining their performance against better competition is tied to mindset. In a team meeting earlier this week, he related a conversation he had with a successful pro golfer, who told Hurdle the key to turning around his golfing career was playing the course, not the competition.

“Regardless of the uniform you are playing against, regardless of the skill set on the mound, you deal with the situation the game presents,” Hurdle said. “There's a runner on third with less than two outs: it's ‘What do I need to do to be successful?,' it's not: ‘(Adam) Wainwright is on the mound, we're playing the Cardinals, they're in first place, and we're down by two.' It's a mindset. And I do think this team is really challenging itself to develop that mindset significantly better than we've ever had it before.”

Still, a favorable schedule has played a role in the Pirates' best start since 1992.

The Pirates have played the 10th easiest schedule in baseball to date, with their opponents in possession of a .493 winning percentage.

The Pirates entered Milwaukee having won 12 of their last 16 games to improve to 11 games over .500 for the first time this season and ahead of the club's 1992 pace when the Pirates were 26-21 through 47 games. But the recent hot stretch coincided with playing some of the weakest teams in baseball: the cellar-dwelling Cubs, the Astros — on pace to lose 114 games — and the Brewers, Mets and Mariners, all in fourth place in their respective divisions.

Some wonder how the Pirates' heavily worked bullpen, an offense that ranks eighth in the National League in OPS (.701), and starters like A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano, who are outperforming most external expectations, will matchup against deeper lineups like those of the Tigers and Reds.

The answers soon will come.

The Pirates entered Friday 1½ games behind the Cardinals in the Central, tied with the Reds for second in the division. It's rare air, but sustaining such a lofty position now only becomes more difficult.

“It comes down to the mindset,” Hurdle said. “Let's just play, let's just keep playing. And that's what we've done, we've kept playing.”

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