Pirates face tough road in NL Central

There are currently five teams in the majors with 40 or more wins, and three of them play in the National League Central.

From top to bottom, the American League East might be a little bit stronger, but on Friday we got a good look at the intriguing race brewing in the NL Central -- and why it might be so tough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to break through.

The Pirates continued their strong play at PNC Park, beating the Dodgers 3-0 to earn their major league-best 24th home win on the year. Jeff Locke allowed three baserunners through seven innings, and then Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli tacked on a scoreless inning each. It was the winning recipe the Bucs have been cooking with all year.

They caught a break when the Cardinals lost 5-4 to the last-place Marlins, as Jose Fernandez became the first pitcher under age 21 to strike out 10 batters in a game since Felix Hernandez in 2007. (If you're only as good as the company you keep, this Fernandez kid is going places.)

It also looked like Pittsburgh might gain a game on Cincinnati, as the Reds made three errors and were outhit 12-7 by the Brewers. But Milwaukee was just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and the Reds won 4-3 in 10 innings on an opposite-field, walk-off homer from Jay Bruce.

And now, despite becoming the fifth team in baseball to reach 40 wins, the Bucs sit in third place, three behind the first-place Cardinals and a half-game behind the Reds for second. Such is life in the National League Central.

The Pirates have made a habit these past couple years of playing well in the first half and getting fans to believe they will finish with a winning record for the first time since 1992, only to collapse down the stretch. However, there is reason to believe that this team's performance is more "real." The biggest reason is the pitching staff, which has shown a dominant streak unseen in the previous two seasons.

Pittsburgh's pitchers are currently third in the NL in strikeouts -- a category in which they finished 12th in 2012 and 16th in 2011. In other words, this is not a staff getting by thanks to some well-placed grounders and fly balls. One problem: The two NL teams with more strikeouts are -- you guessed it -- St. Louis and Cincinnati, respectively. Such is life in the NL Central.

The big separator among the three teams is on offense, as the Cardinals and Reds are second and third, respectively, in the NL in runs, while the Pirates are 10th. You see this difference reflected in the respective run differentials: the Cardinals sit at plus-101, the Reds plus-65 and the Pirates plus-17.

Thanks to their stellar bullpen, the Pirates have the kind of team that can typically outperform its run differential, but it's probably going to take 95 victories to win this division, and the Pirates probably can't get there without adding another bat (or two). Realistically, their best hope is the second wild card, but the Giants and Nationals might have something to say about that.

So it seems that the Pirates are a good bet to have their first winning season since 1992 and could win close to 90 games -- while finishing third in their division. Such is life in the NL Central.