Looking ahead, the Pirates have a great opportunity to make a run back into the NL Central race. Currently, the Bucs sit at 32-33, 5.0 games behind the NL Central lead. And tonight they start a series against the dismal Houston Astros, who are last in the NL Central at 25-42.

After a strong showing in their most recent homestand, the Pirates are looking to ride the momentum of Paul Maholm’s most recent success.

On June2nd, Paul Maholm had one of his only hiccups this season when he allowed the Mets to score seven runs (six earned) against him on the way to a 9-8 Pirates loss.

It’s only fitting that Maholm would pick up his third win of the season against those same Mets, 11 days later, giving the Bucs a series split with New York and their first successful homestand of the season. Since that hiccup, Maholm has pitched 13 scoreless innings of baseball, including seven on Monday.

What’s even more impressive is that Maholm did it with a 26-year-old catcher who, 24 hours earlier, had been grocery shopping when he got called up to the majors.

That catcher’s name is Michael McKenry, and manager Clint Hurdle wasted no time putting him to use.

McKenry, who was traded from the Red Sox’s Triple-A Pawtucket team Sunday night, started his second game ever in the majors on Monday against the Mets, and he looked pretty darn good.

Although he went hitless, McKenry shined when he caught the Mets’ Daniel Murphy in a rundown after the first basemen was cheating to third base.

"[McKenry] was great," Maholm said to Pirates.com. "You see who is catching you, and you’ve never met the guy. You go introduce yourself, go over a game plan, and go out there and execute it. He was spot-on. I didn’t have to shake him a whole lot.”

That news is great for the Pirates, who lost catchers Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder to injuries in the last few weeks. Hurdle has confirmed that the Pirates will continue to look to improve their catching depth.

Although he pitched his most efficient inning in the7th, Hurdle pulled Maholm that same inning after 95 pitches. Once Jose Veras and Tim Wood combined for an inning of pitching, Hurdle called in closer Joel Hanrahan, who continued a great season as he cruised through the ninth inning and recorded his 17th save of the season.

Over the last two seasons, Hanrahan has struck out 127 batters in his 98.1 innings of work with the Pirates. Only three relievers have whiffed more batters in that time.

Another constant for the Pirates recently has been center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen, who has an 11-game hitting streak going, is one of the hottest players in the majors right now. He is currently possesses a .369 on-base percentage since the beginning of last season, first among National League center fielders.

Additionally, after his first 10 games this month, McCutchen leads all National League players in hits, going 18-for-38 with five doubles, a homer, 10 RBIs and nine runs scored.

After they see the Astros early this week, they’ll head to Cleveland for a series with the Indians.

Although they boast a division lead and a 35-29, Cleveland has already showed some signs of inconsistency this month, giving up three straight to the Texas Rangers during a four-game losing skid. If the Bucs can strike early, they’re more than capable of knocking off Cleveland.

After that, it’s another divisional cellar dweller in the Baltimore Orioles (30-33). It goes without saying that the Pirates need to be able to make the runs in these easier stretches of schedule if they are going to be a serious contender for the playoffs.

With the pitching where it is, the star players heating up, and the overall team morale growing each week, heading into July with a strong winning foundation is all the Pirates might need in order to move on to the next level.