PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Pirates posted what was arguably their most important victory since moving into PNC Park in 2001, yet the clubhouse mood was rather subdued afterward.
Pedro Alvarez hit a three-run home run off Jake Westbrook 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.
However, the Pirates, who haven't had a winning season or been to the postseason since 1992, took it all in stride.
"This series is definitely of importance to us," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "But it's a lot more important to people outside this clubhouse and we get that. The sign of a confident team is that its confidence doesn't get shattered after a tough loss or get too high after a good win. We have a very confident team and one game isn't going to change that."
Winning pitcher Francisco Liriano echoed his manager's thoughts.
"It was a good win for us, but now we have to go back out and do it again tomorrow," Liriano said. "There are still a lot of games left in this series and this season."
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.
"I can't explain it," Westbrook said.
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.
"They have a good lineup, but I was just trying to pitch my game, get some ground ball outs, get some fly ball outs and get some strikeouts," Liriano said. "Getting four runs in the first inning helped. It kept me from trying to do too much. I could just go pitch-by-pitch, batter-by-batter and attack their lineup."
The Cardinals have been held to five runs during their four-game skid.
"I've given a lot of credit to pitching lately and, frankly, I'm tired of doing that," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "Liriano threw the ball well and we knew he would, but I'll put our offense against anyone out there. We've faced some of the best pitchers in the league and those are the days when some of our best offense finds a way to make that happen. So we give credit but not to the point where we start to diminish what we believe in our offense."
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.
"I settled in a little bit, in terms of putting up some zeroes, but it was still a battle," Westbrook said. "It just wasn't my sharpest game and that first inning just crushed us."
Jose Tabata drew a leadoff walk in the first and Neil Walker was hit by a pitch before McCutchen lined an RBI single up the middle. Alvarez followed by lining his homer into the right-field stands to increase the lead to 4-0.
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 and added a run in the ninth on Shane Robinson's single.
"You don't play many five-game series, and I think it was really important that we jump out with a win in the first game, regardless of who we are playing," Walker said. "It was a really well-played game on our part in all phases. We pitched well, caught the ball and scored some runs. That was about as complete of a game as we've played."
NOTES: The Pirates placed C Michael McKenry on the 15-day disabled list with an injured left knee prior to the game and recalled Presley from Triple-A Indianapolis. Presley started in left field Monday as Marte sat after going 8-for-50 (.160) with 21 strikeouts in his previous 12 games. ... Cardinals RF Carlos Beltran is 4-for-27 (.148) in his last seven games and 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).