When the Pittsburgh Pirates take the field Saturday night, they will do so as a first-place team.
They may have the right guy on the mound to keep them on top of the NL Central.
The Pirates (48-43) have been synonymous with futility, with 18 straight losing seasons heading into 2011 setting a dubious record for major North American professional sports.
That put Pittsburgh in a virtual tie for first place with St. Louis, with those teams one-half game ahead of Milwaukee. The Cardinals and Brewers lost Friday.
The Pirates actually have a better winning percentage than the Cardinals when taken to the fourth decimal place, .5275 to .5269.
Maholm (6-9, 2.96 ERA) is tied for third among active pitchers with his 11 wins over Houston (30-63), going 11-6 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts. He’s 6-2 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine against the Astros, and 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two this year.
The left-hander excelled Sunday when he earned a 9-1 win over the Cubs by yielding one run over 7 2-3 innings. He matched a season high with eight strikeouts and induced four double plays.
“That’s what I’m trying for,” Maholm told the Pirates’ official website. “I’m trying to get ground ball after ground ball. Those guys are going to have every opportunity.”
Pence is hitting .415 (17 for 41) against Pittsburgh this season, but Houston has lost eight of 10 matchups. The Astros have dropped all four home meetings with the Pirates after winning all nine in 2010.
Houston has lost five straight and 10 of 11. The lone victory in that span was when Bud Norris(notes) (5-6, 3.46) beat the Pirates on July 6 by yielding two runs over seven innings in an 8-2 road victory after the team held a 75-minute team meeting.
Norris improved to 3-4 with a 3.74 ERA in seven starts against Pittsburgh heading into Saturday’s outing. He had been 0-2 with a 3.00 ERA over his previous four starts, with Houston providing five runs of support for him.
Pittsburgh matched a season high by striking out 14 times Friday, but Walker had an RBI single in the first inning and McCutchen tripled in two runs in the third for more than enough support for Karstens in his 83-pitch effort.
“All we needed to do was score one with how (Karstens) was throwing,” McCutchen said. “We were able to nail on a few more and get us a little more relaxed out there.”
Walker is hitting .400 during a 14-game hitting streak against the Astros.