Can The Pittsburgh Pirates Stay In The NL Central Race?

Brandon Wood of the Pittsburgh Pirates is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run against the Houston Astros in the second inning during the game on July 5, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

About three weeks ago, I posed the question "Are The Pittsburgh Pirates For Real?" At the time, they were two games over .500 and three games out of first place in the NL Central.

Since then, they have crept two more games over .500, standing at 45-41 on Wednesday morning and now have sole possession of second place in the division, just 1.5 games behind the first-place Cardinals.

How are they doing this? In Tuesday night's game, a 5-1 win over the Astros, they started two rookies in the leadoff and second spots in the batting order, another rookie catching, their No. 3 hitter had zero home runs and a .329 slugging percentage entering the game, and their starting third baseman had been released earlier this season by the Angels for lack of offense.

So what happened? Of course, that third baseman, Brandon Wood, smacked a two-run homer in the second inning that provided enough runs to win the game. Jeff Karstens lowered his season ERA to 2.55, fifth in the NL -- this from a man whose career ERA was 5.07 coming into the 2011 season.

That's the primary reason behind the Pirates' success -- excellent pitching. Their 3.41 team ERA ranks fifth in the NL, and they have a shutdown closer in Joel Hanrahan, who has 25 saves and zero blown saves this year.

Can they keep this up and continue to stay in the race all season? Or is this a mirage?

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