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Pirates-Rays Preview

AP - Sports

Even after endlessly hearing about the franchise's two decades-long quest to finish better than .500 before last season's 94-win campaign, the Pittsburgh Pirates are probably happy to think about going above the break-even mark in 2014.

The Pirates should have Neil Walker back in the lineup as they try to climb above .500 for the first time since mid-April with a fourth straight win Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Little has come easy for Pittsburgh (38-38) in the aftermath of its first winning season and first playoff appearance since 1992. Three-fifths of the opening-day rotation is injured or no longer on the club and the bullpen has blown 14 save opportunities - the most in the majors and one fewer than it coughed up in 2013.

The Pirates, though, have turned it around in June. Their 3.31 rotation ERA is more than a run better than it was through May and the offense is leading the majors in on-base percentage (.363) and OPS (.786) this month.

The lineup only figures to get more dangerous when Walker comes off the disabled list after missing the past 14 games following an appendectomy. With his second baseman back, Clint Hurdle's biggest concern seems to be a good one - finding playing time for Josh Harrison, who has reached base in 22 of the 23 starts he's made since May 27 while hitting .320 and filling in at second, third and right and left field.

Harrison reached twice and scored twice in Monday's opener, coming around on Pedro Alvarez's three-run homer in the third that was the big blow in the Pirates' 8-1 win over Tampa Bay (31-47).

Alvarez, last season's NL home run co-champ, hadn't gone deep since June 3, but Hurdle is hoping he can heat up as Pittsburgh tries to give itself a winning record for the first time since April 14.

''A lot of times people have been taking their chances with Pedro, and he's an important part of our offense,'' Hurdle said. ''We need him to fire, we need him to drive in runs and that was very good to see."

Any runs Chris Archer (4-4, 3.14 ERA) allows typically wind up being too many given the dismal state of the Rays' offense. The right-hander's 1.95 run-support average since May 1 is the lowest in baseball.

Archer has given up four earned runs in his last seven starts, yet he didn't have a win to show for it in that stretch until Thursday. He held the Astros to three hits over 6 2-3 innings and struck out eight in Tampa's 5-0 victory, extending his scoreless streak at Tropicana Field to 19 innings over the past three starts.

"His stuff is almost always very good," manager Joe Maddon told MLB's official website. "The two things that vary to me is just how he reacts to the moment and the tilt on his slider. Because the velocity on his fastball is normally good. Command of the fastball will come and go. Always does. But when he's able to command his slider, it gets him through those moments."

Neither Archer nor Jeff Locke, Pittsburgh's starter, has faced his Tuesday opponent, but Locke (0-1, 3.76) can relate to Archer's lack of luck. The left-hander has a 2.14 ERA in three starts this month after replacing the injured Gerrit Cole yet is still searching for his first win since Sept. 12.

Locke gave up two runs and three hits over six innings Thursday against Cincinnati, leaving with a lead undone by Jason Grilli's blown save. Pittsburgh won 4-3 in 12.

Locke is 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA in four starts against the AL.

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