PITTSBURGH -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle admits to not being able to see the trees because he is part of the National League Central forest. But he has begun to get the impression his division is becoming pretty hot stuff in the Majors.
The NL Central includes three of the four big league clubs playing better than .600 ball. Hurdle has been fielding a lot of calls from the fourth team at that lofty level -- the Texas Rangers -- as well as another recent place of his employment, Colorado.
"I get more kickback from people on the outside, watching," Hurdle said. "I got friends from Texas and Colorado going, 'What are you guys doing there?' We thought this division would be competitive, but three teams at this level? Anyone check out last time that happened?"
The truth is, going only by final standings, most recent seasons have not included a single .600 team among the Majors' 30 clubs. And since the three-division format was created in 1994 -- meaning, out of a total of 114 possibilities -- only three times has a division included even two .600 teams: The 2004 AL East, and the 2001-02 AL West.
So how are the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates currently doing it?
Beating up on the other guys, for sure. The three frontrunners have played a total of only 15 games amongst themselves, and have each also done well against teams from other divisions (Cardinals 20-10, Reds 21-12 and Pirates 18-12).
Can they all maintain the .600 level? Unlikely. Before it's over, each club will have met the other two 19 teams in the division's revised schedule, so they will be taking a lot of bites out of each other.
"That's a high rate of winning for three teams this early," Hurdle said. "Different teams get hot at different times, and right now, we're all in pretty good shape."
Pirates' stout bullpen saving grace for rotation
PITTSBURGH -- Jason Grilli's ERA may be among the league's best this season, but he doesn't pay attention to it. He doesn't feel relievers should be judged on boiler-plate statistics like that.
The Pirates closer said the amount of inherited runners stranded is more important, while the "sexy" numbers, as Grilli described them, like strikeouts and ERA, aren't as valuable.
"ERAs are pretty misconstrued a lot of times for a reliever," said Grilli, who admitted he received some criticism for his high ERA and lack of strikeouts as a long reliever earlier in his career. "Because, you can have two or three bad outings in a month and it takes almost all year to recover from."
Pittsburgh's bullpen has thrived this season in the areas Grilli finds important. Entering Saturday's game against the Reds, the Bucs' entire staff had the best left-on-base percentage in the league at 77.8, while its bullpen alone had an even more impressive 81.9 mark, also tops in the Majors. That number is calculated not on runners left on base in the box score, but by hits, walks and runs allowed as a result.
Those impressive numbers are why, in part, the Pirates own baseball's third-best record despite the league's sixth-lowest batting average and ninth-fewest runs scored.
"You've really got to like our chances anytime a starter comes out and hands the ball to the bullpen," said Bucs starter Jeff Locke, who exited Thursday's win over the Tigers with two on and one out before Vin Mazzaro worked his way out of the jam. "They've been fantastic this year."
But not every team has the luxury of a bullpen that leads the league in ERA (2.80) opponents' batting average (.211) and WHIP (1.14). Locke says the rotation is getting a little bit spoiled.
"We've come to expect it," he said with a smile.
Lefty Tony Watson said the Pirates' bullpen takes great pride in stranding inherited runners. Because of the "law of averages," he says, a teammate he bails out one night could be getting Watson off the hook for a few runs later in the season. It's all a group effort.
Watson added that he doesn't pay much attention to statistics, but said he "doesn't like walks" and values first-pitch strikes and getting leadoff batters out.
"I'm sure it all evens out over the course of a season," Watson said. "But those are the things I pay attention to."
First number, last word
2.38: The current Pirates 12-man pitching staff's ERA for the month of May. Officially, the staff figure for May was 2.51 -- even that being the Majors' lowest -- but that includes Jose Contreras, who is on the DL.
"He's as athletic a catcher as I've ever had, and as athletic as anyone in the league. Some of those stops ... it's NHL-style hockey, with the leg saves." -- Hurdle, on Russell Martin.
• John McDonald, who was scratched from his last scheduled rehab start for Indianapolis with soreness in his lower back, was due to try it again Saturday night and play seven innings.
• Going into Francisco Liriano's start Saturday night, the Pirates had won 11 of the 15 starts made by their left-handers at PNC Park. The starters themselves had a record of 8-2, with a 2.24 ERA, but the Bucs won three of their five no-decisions.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.