PITTSBURGH - It was the best possible matchup for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the worst for the St. Louis Cardinals: Third baseman Pedro Alvarez facing Jake Westbrook at PNC Park.
Alvarez hit a three-run home run off the Cardinals right-hander to cap a four-run first inning and propel the Pirates to a 9-2 victory Monday night in the opener of a five-game series between the National League's top two teams.
Pittsburgh (62-42) moved within a half game of St. Louis (62-41) in the NL Central. The Cardinals lost their fourth straight game, their longest losing streak since also dropping four in a row last Aug. 28-31.
Alvarez improved to 13-for-23 against Westbrook with three home runs by hitting his 27th homer of the season. Meanwhile, PNC Park continued to be Westbrook's house of horrors as he fell to 0-6 with a 6.02 ERA in his career at the riverfront ballpark.
Francisco Liriano (11-4) pitched seven dominant innings for the victory, holding the NL's highest-scoring team to only one run and four hits. He struck out eight and walked two.
Clint Barmes hit two doubles, including one off Fernando Salas that drove in two runs during a five-run seventh inning. The outburst pushed the Pirates' lead to 9-1.
Andrew McCutchen also had two hits for the Pirates as did the Cardinals'' Matt Holliday.
Westbrook (7-5) made it through the fifth inning, giving up four runs and four hits with two walks and two strikeouts. He had pitched into the seventh in each of his previous four starts in July.
Pittsburgh put the game away in the seventh. In addition to Barmes' double, Alex Presley and pinch-hitter Starling Marte had RBI singles and Gaby Sanchez hit a sacrifice fly.
St. Louis scored its first run in the sixth when pinch-hitter Tony Cruz tripled and scored on Matt Carpenter's single. The Cardinals scored another run in the ninth on Shane Robinson's single.
The Pirates jumped on Westbrook for four runs in the bottom of the first inning before he retired a batter.
Jose Tabata drew a leadoff walk and Neil Walker was hit by a pitch before Andrew McCutchen lined an RBI single up the middle. Alvarez followed by hitting a line-drive three-run home run into the right-field stands to increase the lead to 4-0.
NOTES: The Pirates placed C Michael McKenry on the 15-day disabled list left knee prior to the game and recalled OF Alex Presley from Triple-A Indianapolis. Presley started in left field Monday as LF Starling Marte was rested after going 8-for-50 (.160) with 21 strikeouts in his previous 12 games. ... Cardinals RF Carlos Beltran was 3-for-23 (.130) in his last six games prior to Monday and manager Mike Matheny said the 36-year-old will be rested regularly over the final two months of the season. Last year, Beltran hit just .236 with 12 home runs in 69 games following the All-Star break after hitting .296 with 20 homers in 82 games in the first half. ... The teams play a doubleheader on Tuesday with RHP Lance Lynn (12-5, 3.98) pitching for the Cardinals in the first game against RHP A.J. Burnett (4-7, 2.96). Two rookies are the probable starters in the nightcap with St. Louis LHP Tyler Lyons (2-3, 5.51) expected to face RHP Brandon Cumpton (0-1, 4.02).