MIL@PIT: Walker throws out Gomez to keep 1-0 lead

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' pitching has been as good as anyone's in baseball this year. But good pitching can only take a team so far if the defense behind it isn't there.

Pittsburgh has excelled at both. The club leads the Majors in defensive efficiency, or the rate balls put in play are converted to outs, through 80 games. At the halfway mark, manager Clint Hurdle sees no reason why it can't continue.

Hurdle pointed to Saturday's 2-1 win over the Brewers as an example of why and how the pitching and defense have fed off each other. Francisco Liriano allowed one run in six innings and got some help from Neil Walker in the fourth, when the second baseman nailed the speedy Carlos Gomez at home with the infield in.

"They feel that. The energy that he gives them to know that [Liriano is] going after people and not trying to walk anybody," Hurdle said. "Then the energy they give him with the plays they make to be efficient with the 27 outs, be efficient with the ball and handle it properly. And that just continues to recycle."

Jordy Mercer has been one of the club's biggest surprises, both defensively and offensively. He took over for Clint Barmes as the full-time shortstop a few weeks ago, and Hurdle has been pleased with what the 26-year-old, who bounced between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis earlier in the season, has done.

He showed his range a few times last night, and Hurdle said once Mercer started showing he was capable of playing a full, consistent game at shortstop, he could see everyday time.

"I've always been confident in my defense. I think that's one thing that never lacks with me," Mercer said. "I've always been a defensive-minded guy, taken a lot of pride in my defense, so the confidence has always been there."

Martin contributes to Pirates in all aspects of game

MIL@PIT: Martin nabs Aoki trying to swipe second base

PITTSBURGH -- Though nobody hands out trophies for accomplishments through half a season, the consensus in the Pirates' clubhouse is that Russell Martin could be the team's most important piece so far -- the glue that holds the pitching and defense together -- and he has contributed plenty with the bat, as well.

The club signed Martin to a two-year, $17 million deal last November, and he's helped the Pirates pitching staff become one of baseball's best, despite some critical setbacks.

Of the five pitchers the Pirates broke camp with in late March, only one, Jeff Locke, is currently in the rotation. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are still dealing with various injuries, but Pittsburgh still has the best team ERA (3.17) and opponents' batting average (.227) in baseball, and is fifth in WHIP (1.21).

The Pirates new catcher -- a Gold Glove Award winner, Silver Slugger Award winner and All-Star in both leagues -- has something to do with that, surely.

"That's being echoed from visiting dugouts as well," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's bringing an edge to everything he's doing. Not only behind the plate, but in the batter's box, on the bases, in the clubhouse, in meetings. He's got layers to him with postseason experience, the staffs he's been able to be a part of, the cities ... he's got some levels of toughness and experience that have been very useful in our clubhouse."

Martin has caught 11 different starting pitchers this season, but the status quo remains the same. He's caught Cy Young Award winners and learned the craft of calling games and managing pitchers day by day throughout his eight-year career.

And even with the large turnover in the rotation due to injury, Martin's mindset and approach doesn't change. He just needs to communicate effectively with his pitchers.

"The more you understand your pitchers, the better you're going to be," Martin said. "Also, I have to say, you're only as good as the execution of your pitching. So if your pitcher's not executing pitches, it doesn't matter what you call. They go hand in hand."

The pitchers have executed, and Martin has helped foster that. The Pirates hope it doesn't stop now.

Hurdle, Pirates well aware of season's accomplishments

MIL@PIT: Pirates become first team to win 50 games

PITTSBURGH -- Neither Clint Hurdle nor his players bury their heads in the sand in regard to what they've accomplished this season. It's not as if the Pirates are unaware that they've won eight straight games entering Sunday, or that they have the best record in baseball.

"We talk about everything. We talk about some of those streaks, just because that's the kind of guy I am," Hurdle said. "We're on a road. I want them to enjoy the scenery. Not just put blinders on and drive fast to get there."

A win Sunday would make the Pirates 51-30, tying a franchise best through 81 games. The other teams to do it? The 1971 World Series champions and the '72 National League East winners.

"There's some mile markers that we need to enjoy along the way," said Hurdle, who evaluates everything in a season in quarters. "We're in the right line, but we've still got some miles to travel."

First number, last word

50: The Pirates were the first team in the Majors to 50 wins. The franchise has only accomplished that twice -- 1921 and1960, when the club won its third World Series.

"There's really nothing better than going out and representing your country." -- Hurdle, on his friend and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma being named the head coach of the United States Olympic hockey team for the 2014 Games.

Worth noting

• Wandy Rodriguez received a cortisone shot in his arm Saturday, and his rehab is still on hold. Hurdle said it "wouldn't be fair" to say Rodriguez will need surgery on his forearm, which tightened during a flat-ground throwing session Friday. That injury forced him from a June 5 start against the Reds.

• A win Sunday would give the Bucs five straight wins against the Brewers for the first time since August 2002.

• Pedro Alvarez carried a career-high 12-game hitting streak into Sunday's contest. He's batting .396 during the streak and .247 on the season, with 20 homers and 53 RBIs.