(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

McCutchen, 25, isn’t just on a scorching streak for the month, he’s been doing this all season. And so far, he’s among the leading candidates, if not the sole one, to lock up the season’s biggest award of the year as the NL’s most valuable player. He is perhaps the league’s best player.

The Pirates have surged in playoff contention in large part because of McCutchen and the team’s much-improved pitching. After reaching the playoffs in 1992, the Pirates have been saddled by 20 straight losing seasons but it has changed with the hitting prowess of their 2005 first-round pick.

Since his first season in the majors in 2009, McCutchen has been a talented player. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .286 with 12 home runs, 54 RBI and 22 stolen bases. He produced at about that same rate until his explosion this season.

He plays one of the most demanding positions on the field and has been in the Pirates lineup nearly every day. As of Friday, he sported eye-popping numbers. He leads the majors in hitting (.373) by nearly 20 points. He is first in the NL with 140 hits. He leads the majors in slugging percentage (.632), more than 20 points higher than the next hitter. He leads everyone in OPS+ (193), which adjusts for a ballpark. And he has stolen 14 bases.

McCutchen has hit no NL team harder than the Nationals. In 86 at-bats in 23 games in his career against them, the center fielder has a slash line of .442/.505/.907 with 10 home runs and 21 RBI. In a three-game series in May, the Nationals couldn’t keep him off the bases as he smacked two home runs in nine at-bats and drew three walks.

It’s still early, but if McCutchen continues at this pace he could become the first Pirate to win MVP since Barry Bonds in 1992 and lead his team to a surprising playoff berth.