Pittsburgh Pirates (38-38) at Tampa Bay Rays (31-47), 7:10 p.m. (ET)

06/23/2014 10:33 AM

06/24/2014 10:40 AM

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Pittsburgh Pirates are showing signs of 2013.

The Pirates broke a 20-plus year playoff drought by qualifying as a National League wild card last season, but had followed it up with mediocrity thus far in 2014 while languishing in fourth place in the NL's Central Division.

Things have turned around for Pittsburgh in June, however, and the Pirates have a chance to climb a game above .500 for the first time since April when they visit Tropicana Field for the middle game of a three-game series with the host Tampa Bay Rays.

The team's pitching staff had come unglued in the early stages of this season because of injuries and ineffectiveness. The bullpen has coughed up 14 save opportunities -- which leads the majors and is just one away from the number of blown saves in all of 2013.

But the earned run average this month is down to 3.31 and the offense is pacing the big leagues in on-base percentage at .363.

Second baseman Neil Walker is slotted to return Tuesday after missing 14 games following appendectomy surgery. And Pedro Alvarez, who shared the NL lead in home runs last season, homered in Monday's win for the first time since June 3.

"A lot of times people have been taking their chances with Pedro, and he's an important part of our offense," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We need him to fire, we need him to drive in runs and that was very good to see."

The Pirates will face Tampa Bay's Chris Archer, who's pitched well all season but has averaged fewer than two runs per game in offensive support since May 1 -- the worst mark in baseball.

Archer was a winner his last time out, however, after holding Houston scoreless over 6 2/3 innings and striking out eight batters in a 5-0 victory on Thursday.

Archer has never faced the Pirates, and Pittsburgh starter Jeff Locke has never met the Rays.

Locke has posted a 2.14 earned run average in three starts since being called upon to replace injured starter Gerrit Cole, but he's still not won since last September.

He allowed two runs in six innings on Thursday against Cincinnati, but the bullpen blew a lead in the ninth before the Pirates ultimately won, 4-3, in 12 innings.

He is 2-1 in four career starts against American League opponents.

On Monday, Alvarez clubbed a three-run homer and Edinson Volquez pitched eight strong innings, as the Pirates pounded the Rays, 8-1.

Andrew McCutchen added three hits and knocked in two runs for the Pirates.

Volquez (5-6), who surrendered five hits and a run, exited after throwing 110 pitches, the most this season for the right-hander.

James Loney drove in the only run for the Rays (31-47), who had a chance to climb out of the cellar from baseball's worst mark, but remain behind the Arizona Diamondbacks (32-47).

Alex Cobb (2-6) yielded six hits and six runs over five innings and lost his second straight start. He gave up only one earned run combined over his previous two appearances.

Tampa Bay won two of three meetings with Pittsburgh back in 2008.

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