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CHC@PIT: McCutchen crushes a three-run shot to center

PITTSBURGH -- It was only a month ago that Pirates players were bringing out the company line as the team straddled the .500 mark.

Now, the winning record is no longer a spectacle. In its place is the possibility of the Bucs returning from the All-Star break to take their first division lead in July since 1997.

After a 9-1 rout of the Cubs on Sunday kept them a game behind first-place Milwaukee and St. Louis heading into the four-day break, players made sure to field the questions correctly.

"It's good [to be in the race], but we take it game by game," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We have a second half to go. We're not thinking about anything other than trying to get a win."

Added starter Paul Maholm: "It's early. I think everybody in here understands that we're going day-to-day, we're going series-to-series. If we keep winning series, then other stuff will take care of itself. If we get to September 15-20, then it will be time to worry about stuff like that."

McCutchen and Maholm were the ones who ensured that the team stayed in close contention on Sunday. Maholm pitched 7 2/3 innings, allowing just one run and striking out eight. McCutchen drove in five runs, all in the first five innings.

And whether it's a practiced line or not, the Pirates' day-by-day approach is working. They've won or split each of their last six series. They haven't lost a series at home since May. Their last losing streak was June 17-20; since then, they haven't lost more than one in a row.

The Pirates erased memories of Saturday's loss to the Cubs early on. Alex Presley singled to lead off the game and scored on a sacrifice fly by McCutchen.

After the third inning, the loss was all but forgotten. Maholm led off the inning with a walk, and Presley added his second single of the game. Maholm scored on a double by Neil Walker, and then McCutchen lifted a three-run homer to center field.

Walker tripled in the fifth, ending Cubs starter Ramon Ortiz's day after four-plus innings. Walker soon scored on McCutchen's second sacrifice fly of the day.

"We didn't have our best game yesterday, but we washed it off and got ready for today, and it showed on the field," McCutchen said.

And while Ortiz was getting lit up, Maholm shut the Cubs offense down.

Maholm, who has allowed no more than two earned runs in six of his last seven starts, did not give up a hit until the fourth inning on Sunday. One runner reached in each of the first three innings, but all were eliminated by double plays.

In the fourth, Reed Johnson led off with a double and scored on a groundout. Maholm then induced Jeff Baker to ground into a double play, the fourth of the day. Twenty-two of the 23 outs he recorded were groundouts or strikeouts, and his eight punchouts matched a season high.

"That's what I'm trying for," Maholm said. "I'm trying to get ground ball after ground ball. Those guys are going to have every opportunity. Hopefully they hit them right at them and they make plays, and today they did. That's my goal for every hitter, is to get them to beat it into the ground."

His eight punchouts matched a season high, which he also achieved on April 25 against Washington.

"He had the same command, but better location today," Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. "Away, in, down, some mix of changeup and cutter. He pitched a very good game today."

Though they didn't need the insurance, the Pirates added three more runs in the eighth inning. Garrett Jones entered as a pinch-hitter and hit a bases-loaded double to score two. Mike McKenry then scored on a wild pitch by Cubs reliever John Grabow.

For Maholm, the All-Star break means a six-day layoff as opposed to the regular five days; he is scheduled to pitch on Saturday against the Astros. For the hot Pirates team, it means a bit of a wait before they can continue their run at the division.

"I told our guys before the game, 'Whatever happens, go enjoy yourselves. Have some fun, relax,'" manager Clint Hurdle said. "We'll round it back up in Texas and get after the Astros."

The Pirates are 20-12 against the National League Central this year and begin the second half with series against Houston, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Though they're keeping that day-by-day approach, they know what they need to do.

"We're going to get to Houston and have fun and expect to win another series," Maholm said, "And [then] come back here for some good series against the teams that we need to do well against."

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