ST. LOUIS -- There is little doubt these Pirates are much improved over the 2012 edition. Star hitters Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez are among those to benefit from another year of experience. Their bullpen's 2.73 ERA is the club's lowest since 1982, and the rotation's 3.38 ERA is the best since 1984.
And, oh yeah, they lead the NL Central with a 70-48 record that is third-best in the majors entering their game Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
Surely, this will be the year the Pirates halt the franchise's streak of losing seasons, which at 20 is the longest ever in U.S. major sports. All they need is to finish no worse than 12-32 to have their first winning season since Barry Bonds was manning left field and Jim Leyland was their manager.
The way the Pirates were playing until their four-game losing streak, they were on pace to clinch a winning season well before Labor Day. With a hot streak, they could be seeking victory No. 82 about the time they play host to the Cardinals in the last weekend of August.
But like they insisted last August when they visited the Cardinals, the Pirates have their sights set higher than a winning record. In fact, McCutchen says the day they clinch a winning season will not result in any semblance of a clubhouse celebration.
"We'll let SportsCenter and all them take care of that," McCutchen said Monday. "That's not what we're shooting for. It's not like we got 82 wins, now we can give up. We're pushing for a goal, and that's trying to win a championship."
No team knows better than the Cardinals that the Pirates are capable. Pittsburgh still owns the season series, 7-4, even after the Cardinals have won the past two meetings.
McCutchen says these Pirates are better than last year because of lessons learned from failures over the past two second halves.
"A lot of our success (in the 2012 and 2011 first halves) may have been somewhat of a surprise to us," McCutchen said. "With everything going on around us and people talking about us, we were adding pressure on ourselves when we weren't trying to. This year is more, OK, now we know how to handle those situations."
A talent upgrade hasn't hurt, either. Three offseason acquisitions -- catcher Russell Martin, lefty starter Francisco Liriano and reliever Mark Melancon -- all have played huge roles for the team. Youngsters such as Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole and outfielder Starling Marte also have made a big difference.
Unlike the past two seasons when McCutchen faded down the stretch after strong starts, he has waited until the second half to emerge as an MVP candidate. While Alvarez still isn't hitting his weight in average, his 28 homers are second most in the NL.
And no doubt, the experience of the past two years is paying off.
"We've been through some stuff," McCutchen said. "We're older, wiser, and with experience comes success. We're starting to have that success."
Still, it should be pointed out that despite their winning ways this season, the Pirates have been almost this close before. They are only two games ahead of last year's winning pace at the same point in the season, when they staggered to a 14-30 finish and wound up four games south of .500. This time around, they need to go just 12-32 to secure a winning season.
As likely as that seems, given the failures of their past two Septembers, some sort of celebration would seem to be in order when they officially and finally end their losing ways.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.