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HOU@PIT: McKenry drives in two against the Astros

PITTSBURGH -- Cup runneth over? Not yet. But 81 games into a 162-game season, the Pirates' cup is definitely half-full.

The Bucs pulled into the midseason pit stop on Wednesday with a 6-4 Independence Day victory over the Astros in front of a sellout crowd of 36,827 patriotic and pumped fans at PNC Park.

"The fans here have been just fantastic. Fourth of July ... where else would you rather be than sit in those stands having a hot dog and a soda?" said Michael McKenry, who joined Pedro Alvarez in driving in two runs to support Kevin Correia's stubbornness and the bullpen's shutdown effort.

"The crowd was jacked up. That itself was huge," said Jason Grilli, the middleman in the relief relay that ended with Joel Hanrahan securing his 21st save. "The feeling around here now is real good."

In raising the Jolly Roger for the 15th time in their last 18 home games, the Pirates also raised those half-full cups in a toast to themselves. They improved their record to 45-36, one game better than the 44-37 midpoint standing of the 1992 Bucs, the last Pittsburgh team to finish with a winning record and make the postseason.

The latest triumph forced the Reds to protect their share of the National League Central lead in their night game in Los Angeles against the Dodgers -- which Cincinnati could not do. The Dodgers' 4-1 victory knocked the Reds from the NL Central perch, allowing the Bucs to stand alone atop the division.

"It doesn't just happen. Nobody hits you with a wand and you end up in this spot," said manager Clint Hurdle, proud of the men who earned this turnaround. "Those around in April and May know it hasn't been all high-fives and walk-offs and giggles. There was a lot of gnashing of teeth."

Once again, the Pirates found themselves in an early hole, as the Astros got in the first licks for the third time in as many games.

Jason Castro's sacrifice fly and Brian Bogusevic's RBI single handed rookie left-hander Dallas Keuchel a 2-0 lead in the second inning.

Once again, the deficit was a fleeting annoyance, gone by the bottom of the second. It was dented by McKenry's sacrifice fly, neutralized on an RBI single by Clint Barmes, and overcome when Alvarez scampered home on an ensuing rundown that erased Barmes.

"We don't get overwhelmed when we're down," Hurdle said following his team's 23rd comeback win out of the 45. "There's definitely more confidence in the dugout now, from the top of the lineup to the bottom. Everybody feels as though they can be part of a [productive] inning."

While Correia grew protective of the lead, the Pirates added onto it in the fourth, when McKenry's double down the left-field line scored Garrett Jones, who had singled with one away ahead of a walk to Alvarez.

McKenry's production continued his considerable role in the recent offensive surge. In catching eight of the 11 games while Rod Barajas has been going light with a bone-bruise in his left knee, McKenry has hit .419 and driven in 11 runs.

"The opportunity to play more lately has been awesome," McKenry said. "A lot of fun. Rod has done a great job leading me in the right direction, because he's played that [part-time] role before. I look forward to growing in all aspects."

Jose Altuve's run-scoring grounder in the fifth took a bite out of that 4-2 lead, but Correia kept stranding runners before exiting with a 4-3 edge when he turned the ball over to the bullpen in the seventh. During Correia's six innings, the Astros left three men in scoring position.

Correia allowed six hits and three runs, with two walks and a strikeout, another in a string of steady, if unspectacular, outings. The Bucs won for the sixth time in the right-hander's last eight starts.

"He probably had enough gas in the tank to start the seventh," Hurdle said. "Kevin did a nice job. You make mistakes, [the Astros] bury you, because they're very aggressive. He did a nice job on a day we needed it."

Continuing front and center in the Pittsburgh offensive -- but in a decidedly different fashion -- was Jones, who is 8-for-13 in the first three games of this four-game series.

Jones remained hot, with a side-burner. He hadn't had a hit off a left-hander since mid-2011, until squibbing an infield single off Fernando Abad in the series opener, and added hits off Keuchel his first two times up on Wednesday.

Hurdle didn't mind taking a little credit for that. He kept Jones in the lineup for a rare start against a southpaw partly because of the unavailability of Alex Presley (resting after an episode of concussion-like symptoms), but also because he assessed Keuchel as being vulnerable against left-handed hitters. The sample size was quite small for a guy making his fourth big-league start, but left-handers were batting .316 off him.

"I've tried to pick spots, and there haven't been that many for Garrett," Hurdle said. "With the short bench, I felt this was a good opportunity. But Garrett is just another man hitting with confidence up there now."

Few men's confidence compares with that of Alvarez. OK, Andrew McCutchen is off the charts -- Wednesday's 1-for-3 kept his Major League-leading average at .360.

But after Alvarez let a little air out of an increasingly-tense affair with a two-run single in the seventh off Abad that widened the Bucs' lead to 6-3, he claimed 13 RBIs in his last six games.

"You're seeing a guy finding his rhythm and his confidence," Hurdle said. "Breaking ball from a left-hander, struck sharply back to center field. Very pretty."

A modest 1-for-2 raised Alvarez's overall numbers to a .237 average with 15 homers and 48 RBIs. In day games, however, El Toro is hitting .316 with 12 of the home runs and 28 of the RBIs.

Let the sunshine in, indeed.

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