BALTIMORE -- In the midst of one of their best stretches in almost 20 years, the Pirates are still managing to keep an even keel.
The Bucs have won 12 of their last 15 games and have taken five straight series for the first time since 1992. That hot streak has landed them in a first-place tie with Cincinnati, the first time Pittsburgh has been atop the NL Central since July 25, 2011.
Still, manager Clint Hurdle says the atmosphere in the clubhouse has remained unchanged.
"I think it has to do with maturity," Hurdle said. "It has to do with keeping the game simple and one of the things we've tried to do collectively as a group since the beginning of 2011 is to honestly self-evaluate."
Even during a 20-24 start before the recent tear, Hurdle said his team never panicked.
"They all believed deep in their core they were better than what they were showing, so they had that to hold onto," Hurdle said. "I think they've continued to challenge themselves and continued to work, which is just as important as anything. They've continued to work to get better and now they're starting to reap some of the fruits of their labor and some of their extra work."
Hurdle knows the Pirates have been in this situation before. Last year, the team shot out to a 51-44 start, only to close the season 21-46.
The players on that roster learned from that experience, Hurdle said.
"We need to all be of the understanding that this is a marathon," Hurdle said. "I do believe last year most of the players in that clubhouse actually walked out for the first time understanding what a 162-game season was all about. We played four months of very entertaining, enjoyable baseball and I think it drained them mentally and it drained them physically."
With those experiences and the addition of four experienced players in A.J. Burnett, Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes and Erik Bedard, Hurdle said he thinks he has a clubhouse capable of keeping it together through the ups and downs of a season.
"Having all of those experiences to walk away, and to kind of evaluate them over the winter, you kind of walk in, 'I'm going to be mentally tougher, I know what to expect there,'" Hurdle said. "That's the thing that I've really kind of been most pleased with is our ability to throw a shoe, have a bad game, shower and come back the next day and kind of recalibrate and get back in a good place."
Hague gets DH nod in opener with O's
BALTIMORE -- Faced with the unusual -- and in his opinion disadvantageous -- situation of having to choose a designated hitter, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided on Matt Hague.
Hague, who has played 16 games at first base this season, batted fifth against Baltimore left-hander Wei-Yin Chen on Tuesday.
"We knew we were going to face left-handed pitching coming in tonight," Hurdle said. "The combination of looking to put your best defensive team on the field, a bat that can maybe not fall into the platoon situation for this evening, Matt seemed to jump out to me."
Hague is 4-for-16 against lefties this season compared to 7-for-37 against righties.
General manager Neal Huntington left the door open to the Pirates calling up Jeff Clement -- who is hitting .301 for Triple-A Indianapolis -- to serve as the designated hitter.
Instead, Hurdle chose to keep it in-house, even though his club doesn't have the same advantages most American League teams do.
"More often than not, you get the short end of the stick in the National League when you go to an American League city," Hurdle said. "We're not built for a DH. These American League clubs go out in the winter and they buy DHs, or they grow their own DHs. It's a big bat that usually hits in the middle of the lineup."
During a three-game series in Detroit in mid-May, Hurdle gave Josh Harrison, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez one turn each in the designated-hitter role.
"More often than not, in my experiences, it's a bench player in the National League that gets an opportunity to get three or four at-bats or you give a regular a day off of his feet and you hit him," Hurdle said. "It's a little different for us, as well, but that's the way it is. I kind of like the way we're going at it here, whether it's right-handed or left-handed pitching, I think we've got some options to put in that position."
• Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said every pitcher in his bullpen was rested and ready to go following Monday's off-day.
• Pedro Alvarez started at third base and hit sixth on Tuesday against Baltimore left-hander Wei-Yin Chen. Alvarez was being used in a platoon to avoid matchups with lefties earlier in the season and was given the day off against Kansas City left-hander Bruce Chen on Sunday.
Greg Luca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.