The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't complete strangers to contention - they spent some time atop the NL Central last July - but they're showing some signs they might have a bit more staying power this season.
Perhaps the most compelling is the pitching of James McDonald.
McDonald has been one of the majors' top starters since the beginning of May, and he'll look to pitch the Pirates to their seventh win in eight home games Saturday night against the Kansas City Royals.
Pittsburgh hung in the NL Central through July last season thanks to an impressive road record (27-22 through July 25, its last day atop the division) and a solid pitching staff (3.39 ERA through those first 100 games overall).
What the Pirates (30-27) didn't ever do was turn PNC Park into much of a home-field advantage. Pittsburgh finished 36-45 at home - its fifth straight losing season at PNC - but is making its 12-year old digs count so far in 2012. The Pirates improved to 17-11 on the shores of the Allegheny with Friday's 4-2 victory over Kansas City, their 10th in 13 overall to stay two games behind first-place Cincinnati.
The 57 games it took Pittsburgh to win its 30th are the fewest since 1992 - the club's last winning season.
"I like our chances, I really do," second baseman Neil Walker, who had three hits for his fifth multihit game in June, told MLB.com prior to Friday's victory. "So as long as we stay healthy and continue to be confident and consistent, I think we've got a great chance."
While Pittsburgh's 3.28 ERA is among the majors' four best, no one's been better than its 2.39 mark at home. Unfortunately for Kansas City (24-32), the Pirates' final two starters in this series rank fourth (A.J. Burnett, 1.02) and sixth (McDonald, 1.28) in home ERA.
McDonald (5-2, 2.14 ERA) has been outstanding regardless of where he's taken the ball. Only the New York Mets' R.A. Dickey (1.24) has a better ERA than McDonald's 1.54 since May 1, and the right-hander picked up his third straight victory in Sunday's 6-5 win at Milwaukee.
McDonald bounced back from allowing two unearned runs in the first inning to surrender only one more in the next five. He struck out eight for the sixth time this season, getting his final five outs via the punchout.
Pittsburgh's entire starting staff had only seven eight-strikeout games in 2011.
"He didn't have his best stuff today but he did have, and he has for much of the season, an extremely good downhill angle on his fastball.'' manager Clint Hurdle said. "It was good for him to finish.''
A loss Saturday would be the Royals' 17th in 23 interleague games, but they actually shouldn't feel too terrible about their chances with Vin Mazzaro (2-0, 2.25) on the hill. Three weeks after winning at Texas in his first start since June 18, Mazzaro held Oakland to four hits over six innings Sunday in beating his former club 2-0.
Neither of Saturday's starters has faced his opponent before, and neither has earned a win in interleague play. McDonald has no record and a 2.35 ERA in four games - two starts - versus the AL, while Mazzaro is 0-5 with a 4.60 ERA in eight starts against the NL.
The Pirates have won nine of 12 interleague home games with Andrew McCutchen posting a .520 on-base percentage in those contests. Yet McCutchen, who went 0 for 4 Friday, is hitless in 14 career at-bats against Kansas City.