Despite shaky period, Bucs still in playoff hunt

Pirates end first half by winning 12 of 16 heading into All-Star break

Despite shaky period, Bucs still in playoff hunt

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates played well to start 2016, carrying a winning record into June even as they remained well behind the streaking, division-leading Cubs. But a 9-19 month sent them tumbling down the standings, back below .500 and -- in some observers' eyes -- out of the playoff picture.

But Pittsburgh rebounded, transforming into the club many expected to see out of Spring Training: a deep lineup consistently pressuring opposing pitchers and delivering timely hits, good-enough starting pitching and a shut-down bullpen.

The Pirates' recent resurgence put them three games above .500, 46-43 and third in the National League Central. They weathered the worst part of their schedule, a hectic travel slate and a long stretch without a true day off.

For all that seemingly went wrong, the Pirates are only 1 1/2 games out of the Wild Card picture with things beginning to fall in place for a second-half run.

WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Pirates started and finished strong, pulling nine games over .500 (28-19) on May 27 and winning 12 of their final 16 games heading into the break. Their offensive approach yielded excellent results in April before tailing off in May and June and re-emerging in July. Starling Marte continues to shine, and Gregory Polanco has broken out. John Jaso has been an upgrade defensively at first base. Their reserves were assets, from David Freese filling in for Jung Ho Kang to Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez contributing off the bench. For the most part, their rookies acquitted themselves well in their debuts. The back end of the bullpen (Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz) protected most of Pittsburgh's late leads.

Polanco's two-run homer

WHAT WENT WRONG
From May 28 to June 23, the Pirates lost 20 of 26 games. Andrew McCutchen was not himself in the first half, hitting .247 while striking out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances. Nor was Francisco Liriano, currently 5-8 with a 5.15 ERA. Their mid-rotation starters, Jonathon Niese and Jeff Locke, also struggled. Juan Nicasio couldn't carry his excellent spring numbers into the regular season. Gerrit Cole was injured, and catcher Francisco Cervelli went down in the same game. Their starters didn't pitch deep enough into games, exposing a shaky and struggling middle-relief group that only recently righted itself. The weather and schedule did them no favors, bringing them to the ballpark with a scheduled game for 48 straight days.

WHAT WE LEARNED
The Pirates' lineup was as good as expected, if not better, despite McCutchen's uncharacteristic three-month slump. The Bucs planned to sacrifice some power for on-base ability, and it has played out that way. They're tied for 23rd with 88 homers, but their .337 on-base percentage ranks third behind the Red Sox and Cubs. They'll need more out of their underperforming pitching staff, the key to their success the previous three seasons but a weakness through most of April, May and June. Cole was sorely missed during his time on the disabled list, and the Pirates will need him in top form when he returns after the break.

FIRST HALF TOP EVERYDAY PLAYER
Marte, the Pirates' top all-around player and a still-developing superstar, earned his first trip to the All-Star Game. Marte hit .316/.363/.460 with six homers, 32 RBIs and 30 steals in the first half while continuing to play Gold Glove-caliber defense in left field. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Marte leads the Pirates with 3.0 Wins Above Replacement.

Marte records three hits in win

FIRST HALF TOP PITCHER
The only consistently reliable pitcher for the Pirates was Melancon, the All-Star closer who posted a 1.23 ERA and recorded saves in 27 of his 28 opportunities. He may not be flashy, but he's as effective as ever. The bullpen has somewhat stabilized behind Melancon, but his steady presence in the ninth inning guided it through a rough patch early on.

Melancon closes out the 9th

 FIRST HALF TOP ROOKIE
Selected second overall in the 2010 Draft, right-hander Jameson Taillon worked his way back from Tommy John surgery and an ill-timed hernia operation last year to bolster the Bucs' rotation with a couple solid outings -- and an eight-inning gem at Citi Field in his second start -- before heading to the disabled list to manage his workload.

Taillon takes no-no into 7th

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.