Bucs a near playoff lock

The Pirates are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

If you've checked the standings at any point in the past few days, you've seen something quite unusual: The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in baseball. We're not talking about being 1-0 after Opening Day, either, but the best record at the halfway point of the season.

The Pirates made appearances at the top of the National League Central in July of 2012 and 2011 yet finished below .500 on both occasions. This time around is different -- Pittsburgh fans should start clearing their schedule for at least the first week of October.

The 2013 Pirates have an important difference from the 2011 and 2012 Pirates as they have a sizable cushion in the overall NL standings. If the season ended today, the team with the best record in the National League that would not make the playoffs, the Washington Nationals, would be 9½ games behind Pittsburgh. That gives the Pirates an impressive surplus of breathing room, and it would take a major collapse for one of the wild-card spots to fall out of reach.