HOUSTON - Two teams headed in opposite directions face off when the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates return from the All-Star break with a weekend series.
The surprising Pirates have abandoned their usual spot in the basement of the NL Central for a much better view near the top of the division, finishing the first half with a winning record for the first time since 1992. The Astros? They dropped nine of 10 to limp into the break with a major league-worst 30-62 record.
"There's something different about us," said Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen, fresh off his first appearance in the All-Star game. "It's more of knowing that we're going to go out and have a good game and have the opportunity to win than just hoping that we win this year. That's been the difference with us. Just being real positive and almost knowing in our head that we can go out and we're going to win."
The Pirates (47-43) are just 10 games away from matching their win total from last year's major league-worst 57-105 season. The huge turnaround was one of baseball's biggest surprises in the first half, but not for the players in Pittsburgh's clubhouse.
"I think we all believed in ourselves and the better we played, it just kind of grew into a confidence we had day in and day out," pitcher Jeff Karstens said Thursday. "There were a lot of people that probably doubted us, but we never doubted ourselves."
Karstens and the rest of Pittsburgh's rotation have played a prominent role in the Pirates' success this season. Karstens' 2.55 ERA is fifth in the NL and teammate Paul Maholm is just behind him in eighth with an ERA of 2.96.
Tonight: Pittsburgh Pirates at Houston Astros, 8:05 p.m.
Pitching matchups: Pirates RHP?Jeff Karstens (7-4) vs. Astros RHP?Brett Myers (3-9)
McCutchen is proud of Pittsburgh's first-half success and excited that it created a buzz that this team that hasn't had in many years. He smiled broadly Thursday night while recalling seeing a fellow passenger on his commercial flight from Arizona to Houston reading a newspaper that featured a story about Pittsburgh's strong first half.
"That's pretty awesome to be able to see that, and it just makes you feel good and gets you pumped up for the second half," he said.
That doesn't mean McCutchen and the Pirates are content with what they've done so far. For the season to be a success, they say they must keep it up after the break.
"We had a real good first half," McCutchen said. "We haven't done that in a long time, so it's very exciting to see what we've done and be a part of it. We just have to learn from what we did the first half and continue from there and try to have an even better second half."
The Astros are in a much different place, simply hoping to get on track and salvage something positive from a difficult season. Ask general manager Ed Wade what he hopes to see from his team in the second half and his answer is simple.
"How many games do we have in the second half? Win 'em all," he said, only half-joking.
But he does believe the Astros are more talented than their record indicates and says he needs to see more consistent play from many players if they hope to secure their spots for next season.
"We're giving a lot of young guys some really great opportunities here and (they are) well deserved because we think they're very good players and I hope they take advantage of these opportunities and play up to their potential because if they do that we are going to win a lot of games," he said.
Houston center fielder Michael Bourn has been one of the few bright spots and leads the majors with 35 stolen bases. As one of the longest-tenured players on the team, he sees it as his responsibility to lead by example and help the younger players gain confidence. He said the team can't do anything about its terrible first half but it can to use it as incentive to get better.
"You can't run away from it," he said of the record. "You can't not talk about it. We know where we stand. We have to make small climbs from there. You can't look at the big picture. You look at it in small fragments ... and try to improve every day."
NOTES: The Pirates optioned pitcher Daniel Moskos to Triple-A Indianapolis. ... Pittsburgh pitcher Ross Ohlendorf (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehabilitation assignment on Thursday with Single-A Bradenton. ... Pirates INF Steve Pearce (right calf strain) had his rehab assignment transferred from Bradenton to Triple-A Indianapolis. ... The Pirates signed 1B Alex Dickerson, a third-round selection in this year's draft.