Real or not? Are the Pirates actually a real playoff contender

play
Dickerson homers in 4th straight game, Bucs win 9th straight (0:27)

Corey Dickerson's two-run home run helps the Pirates defeat the Reds and extend their winning streak to nine games. (0:27)

The Pittsburgh Pirates have suddenly won nine games in a row, turning what appeared to be a tedious season of subpar mediocrity into something interesting. They hit four home runs in a 9-2 win over the Reds -- Corey Dickerson hit his fifth in four games as he went 4-for-5 -- to improve to 51-49. They're now just four games out of the second wild card, part of a crowded race that has eight teams within five games of each other for the two wild-card spots.

In other words, the Pirates are right there, as much a part of the playoff picture as the Cardinals, Giants or Nationals. It probably means the Pirates aren't going to trade Dickerson or Josh Harrison, and they might have even make a minor move or two if the front office can convince ownership to part with a couple nickels. And maybe it will:

It's hard to peg the Pirates right now. Their playoff odds according to FanGraphs are 13 percent, about where they were in the preseason (9 percent). So they're kind of who we thought they were (I had them at 81 wins) -- a team with some depth, no glaring holes, no outstanding strengths. They don't have an ace, an All-Star position player or a dominant bullpen (although they're 44-1 when leading after seven innings and 43-2 when leading after eight).

They are getting a nice season out of Dickerson, who is now hitting .315/.347/.509. Starling Marte has bounced back from last year's PED suspension with a .287/.333/.494 line. Gregory Polanco had a big June and has hit six home runs in July to lead the team with 17 overall.

Getting Francisco Cervelli back from his concussion problems will help, although backup Elias Diaz has actually been hitting cleanup of late. Jameson Taillon is the only starter with an ERA below 4.00.

Still, there isn't any obvious star power here and it's difficult to make the playoffs without several 4- or 5-WAR players (Dickerson, Marte and Taillon are the only ones above 2.0 more than halfway through the season). To make the playoffs, they're going to need somebody to emerge these final two months.

Maybe it's Josh Bell, who has followed up his 26-homer rookie season with just five home runs so far. Maybe Polanco finally has emerged as a power threat. Maybe Taillon makes a leap or Joe Musgrove proves he's more than a back-end starter.

The odds are long ... but if you're a Pirates fan there's added incentive now to watch the games.

Matt Carpenter doesn't homer: Carpenter went 1-for-4 with an intentional walk, ending his streak of six straight games with a home run (he hit eight home runs during the streak). That was the longest single-season streak in Cardinals history and tied Mark McGwire's franchise record (he did it over two seasons). Carpenter has been so hot that the Cubs moved into a four-man outfield at one point.

The big story of the game, however, was the Cubs won 7-2, scoring five runs off the St. Louis bullpen after Miles Mikolas has pulled after five innings. Kyle Schwarber hit the go-ahead home run off Mike Mayers in the sixth:

The Cardinals did win two of the five games in this series, but the bullpen allowed 19 runs and 27 hits in 18 innings with more walks than strikeouts. It goes without saying that if the bullpen doesn't turn things around, the Cardinals can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. Those are already fading, as they've fallen from four games out of first place on June 27 to 8.5 games back -- and are now in fourth place behind the Pirates.

Kemp powers Dodgers over Brewers: Sticking to the NL Central, Matt Kemp's two home runs lifted the Dodgers to an 11-2 win over the Brewers as L.A. took two of three in the series and handed the Brewers their eighth loss in nine games.

Craig Counsell has tried a few things. Jesus Aguilar played third base on Saturday with Clayton Kershaw starting. Keon Broxton hit leadoff on Sunday. That's just moving around the deck chairs. The Brewers need to make a move or be content battling for the wild card instead of challenging the Cubs.

On the other hand, at least it's not the black plague: Just another weekend in Mets land:

  • Yoenis Cespedes returns from the DL, hits a home run and then says his heels are bad enough that they may require surgery that could sideline him 8-to-10 months. Manager Mickey Callaway acts surprised about all this, which sounds all too familiar, the same communication issues that plagued the team in 2016. Cespedes doesn't play Saturday.

  • The team trades reliever Jeurys Familia to the A's for such a minimal return that Keith Law labels the deal a salary dump and "embarrassing for the Mets and for Major League Baseball" to see a large-market team operating in such manner.

  • Noah Syndergaard lands on the DL with hand, foot and mouth disease, which sounds like a 16th-century affliction common to cows. He apparently got the viral illness while hosting a camp for kids over the All-Star break (the virus usually affects kids 5 and younger). Even when the Mets try to do something good, something bad happens.

A's keep on rolling: The A's beat the Giants 6-5 in 10 innings for the second straight walk-off win when Matt Chapman's two-out bouncer eludes Brandon Crawford:

Khris Davis tied the game in the eighth with a home run off Mark Melancon, and newcomer Familia got the win with two scoreless innings. The A's are an MLB-best 23-7 since June 16 and 9-0-1 over the past 10 series. They remain three games behind the Mariners for the second wild card.

What will Billy Beane do? Of course, at this time of the year, we ask that of every general manager.