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08/27/07 2:51 PM ET

Pirates keep playoff hopes alive

Team looks forward to meaningful stretch drive in September

It's that time of the year in Pittsburgh. The timing has been the same for years, and three things can be counted on with remarkable certitude:

The days until the Steelers season opens are nearing single digits. The gridiron black and gold supersedes all other colors and all other loyalties. And the Pirates are out of contention.

Well, hold on. The timing of that third item seems to be a little off this year, at least that's what you'll hear if you take a quick survey of the Pirates clubhouse.

"I see ourselves in it," closer Matt Capps said, referring to the chances of the Pirates in the division race.

Ask Shane Youman, and the same confident answer emerges: "I think we do have a chance. You've got 30-plus games to go, and stranger things have happened in this game."

Stranger things have happened. For that matter, stranger things happened in baseball over the past 10 days, when fans saw a team score 30 runs in a game, a hitter knock 10 RBIs in a night and a pitcher nab 11 total bases in a game.

But really, is it time to start scoreboard watching and root for Chicago and Milwaukee and St. Louis to lose? You can argue that it's slightly delusional, or just an attempt to hold firm to false hope. But while doubt and cynicism and low expectations follow this team like a mouse trails cheese, these players believe in themselves and can't help but look up at the league scores periodically.

The Pirates believe they're continuing to improve, continuing to mesh. They believe they still have a shot at the elusive .500 mark. They believe they are still in a division race marked by parity and mediocrity.

"Until we're mathematically out of it, I think we're in the race," Capps said. "You know, maybe if we can catch up with them, or at least start working toward .500. ... [On Friday], I saw Milwaukee and St. Louis lost."

See, they're watching. Yes, a division title is still a far-fetched idea. It would require the Pirates to pass four other teams and erase a deficit of nine games in their final 33 games. But consider this...

When the month started, the Pirates sat 14 1/2 games out of first, looking like the biggest thing to gain over the last two months was a high draft pick for next year. Since then, the team has shaved 5 1/2 games in 25 games, bringing that deficit back to single digits.

If that trend were to continue, 25 games from now -- which would hit with eight games remaining in the season -- Pittsburgh would stand just 3 1/2 games back.

Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Well, apparently not.

"I'm sorry, but they've made great strides," manager Jim Tracy said of his young team, which has posted a 15-10 mark this month. "And they've made great strides since February of last year. They keep on making them. And I know the path that we're on is right."

Some had given the Pirates no chance when the season started, pointing to youth in the starting rotation or to holes in the lineup.

Others joined the naysayers by the time Interleague Play ended, especially after two of the season's lower moments -- series sweeps by the Yankees and Angels.

And by the end of July, when the Pirates' 42-66 record earned them the distinction of the league's worst, and the only belief in the team came from within the team. Even there, though, it might have been questionable.

Then something changed.

There's a new motivation among teammates and a higher sense of accountability. And don't discount the fact that the Pirates' recent turnaround coincided with the arrival of Matt Morris, who numerous teammates point to as one of the catalysts behind the new attitude.

"You have Matt Morris teaching everybody, and Shawn Chacon teaching pitchers, and everybody's watching them and basically following in their footsteps, especially Matt Morris," said Ian Snell. "Even though he came out of a game losing, you have to see that he still comes down and is cheering the team.

"It's pretty amazing what words can do," Snell continued. "I think everybody is just motivating each other and helping everyone out. We're having fun."

Now, the Pirates will enter September believing there is more to play for than the recognition of being spoilers. And whether not it's a division title, there are some marks to shoot for.

It's very unlikely the Pirates will be able to stop from finishing with a losing record, something they've done already 14 years straight. But that's not to say the goal of reaching .500 that was set at midseason isn't still the goal.

"Getting close to .500 and not having 100 losses and giving the city of Pittsburgh something to look forward to as we go into next year is a big plus," Snell said, listing what he thinks the team should strive for. "They want to see a team at .500. It's time we start shooting for that.

"Unless we come out of nowhere and win this division," the right-hander added. "That would be pretty cool."

There again, they believe.

A more realistic goal would be reaching the 76-win mark, something the Pirates have yet to do this century. That would take just a modest 19-14 run to finish the season. A slightly better finish of 21-12 would ensure the Pirates a second straight winning second half, an accomplishment that seemed downright impossible with the way the team came out of the gates after the All-Star break.

"At this point in time, no matter what the situation, you always want to finish out strong," Youman said. "That's the key. We want to finish up real strong."

Even before both of those, with three wins in the last five games to close out the month, this team could win 18 games in a month for the first time since PNC Park first opened its gates in 2001.

"We're just trying to find little battles here or there that we can build off of and try to focus on the positives," Capps said. "Everybody loves to win. Not to sound selfish, but everyone in here wants to have an All-Star year and be able to look back and say, 'I had a pretty good year.'"

No matter how small or improbable the goal, the good news in Pittsburgh is that September will mean more than watching a handful of prospects test the Major League waters. It will mean more than devastating another teams' playoff hopes. It will mean more than just going through the motions.

With 26 of the final 33 games pitting the Pirates against NL Central foes, they hold the key to where they will finish and how they finish. But do know this, until that elimination number hits zero, those quick peeks at the scoreboard will continue. And if nothing else, a team built for the future can use these final months to take steps toward a promising one.

"Everything's starting to come together at the right time," Youman said. "We're playing good ball, and as long as we take care of what we need to take care of, we'll be OK."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.