Maholm wraps up Bucs' sweep

Maholm wraps up Bucs' sweep

PITTSBURGH -- With the hopes of a first winning season since 1992 now all but a mathematical impossibility, the Pittsburgh Pirates are hoping to use the waning days of the 2006 season as a building block for the future.

The Bucs took a big step in that direction this weekend at PNC Park by sweeping the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals for the first time since June 28-30, 2004. Including their 7-0 whitewash of the Redbirds on Sunday, the Pirates outscored St. Louis, 17-3, in the three-game set by combining outstanding starting pitching with solid defense and just enough timely hitting.

In a nutshell, the Pirates put together the kind of winning formula that had usually been missing while they stumbled to a 42-73 record prior to the sweep.

"That may be our finest weekend of the season," said Pirates manager Jim Tracy. "Actually, I don't think there's any question about that. [We swept] what has been for the past few years ... the No. 1 class team in our division."

It was not only what the Pirates did to the Cardinals, but who did it for the Bucs that had Tracy feeling optimistic about the team's development. Many of the biggest contributions came from players who are considered the cornerstones of the team's future.

On the heels of back-to-back strong outings by young starters Zach Duke and Ian Snell, rookie southpaw Paul Maholm tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings Sunday against St. Louis.

"I just didn't want to mess the trend up of the starting pitchers," said Maholm. "When you can go through three games and hold those guys to three runs, it's a good weekend.

"It's a confidence builder for us to play like that. It sets the trend for how we're going to play for a good while now. We have a lot of young guys and we're getting the experience and confidence to play like that."

Although Maholm (5-10) allowed eight hits and three walks, he was able to nimbly work his way out of jams when necessary. Maholm's tightest spot came in the fifth inning, when he induced Gary Bennett to hit into an inning-ending groundout with the bases loaded.

"I didn't have the best stuff today," said Maholm. "But it was one of those things where I made the key pitches and got out of it. Not one pitch was the dominant pitch today, so I was mixing it up to keep them off balance."

Tracy was impressed by the way his young starting pitchers were able to make adjustments on the fly throughout the weekend series.

"With each and every time that one of your young guys goes out there and pitches, you see a much better presence of mind and understanding of what they have to do," Tracy said. "And if they get themselves in a little trouble or get themselves out of sync, you're seeing the capability now to make an adjustment in midstream that we weren't seeing earlier in the season."

Maholm was lifted after surrendering a two-out double in the seventh inning to So Taguchi, so that right-hander Salomon Torres could face the dangerous Albert Pujols. The Cardinals slugger nearly tied the game at 2 on a deep fly ball to left field that hooked just foul. But after Pujols coaxed a walk to put the potential tying run aboard, Torres retired Scott Rolen on a popup to first base to end the threat.

"[That was] huge," said Tracy.

The young hitters also contributed to the successful weekend. After Nate McLouth had a triple, a home run and three RBIs out of the leadoff spot on Friday night before leaving the game with an ankle injury, Chris Duffy filled in admirably at the top of the order the rest of the series. Duffy followed up his 3-for-5 night Saturday by reaching base four times in five plate appearances Sunday.

With the Pirates leading, 2-0, in the eighth inning, Duffy delivered the key hit of the finale by lacing a two-run single past a drawn-in infield with the bases loaded. Freddy Sanchez's two-run double later in the frame put the game out of reach.

"Coming up in the clutch always feels good. Giving us that little cushion enabled us to sit back a little bit," said Duffy. "Every aspect of our game this weekend was on. Our pitching, especially, was tremendous. If we keep doing that, play defense like we've been doing and get some timely hits, we should be OK."

Of the eight Pirates hits Sunday, four came in their nine at-bats with runners in scoring position.

"We're taking better at-bats," said Tracy. "I don't see the anxiousness that I saw earlier in the year. I see a better understanding of the situation. I see a better understanding of what it is they're looking for and what they need to do to be successful in those given situations."

The Pirates clubbed back-to-back long balls against Cardinals starter Jason Marquis in the second inning to take an early lead. Jason Bay began the frame with his 25th home run of the season and first at home since June 18. Joe Randa followed with his third homer.

"They're still Major League ballplayers, playing with purpose and pride, and they want to make impressions," said Marquis, who fell to 12-11 after allowing two runs in six innings. "And they're pretty good ballplayers, you know. You can't let your guard down against anybody no matter where they stand."

With 44 games remaining, the Pirates are hoping to close out the 2006 season in a much different way than they started it.

"We've got some young guys in there now playing every day," said Sanchez, who improved his NL-best batting average to .346 with two hits Sunday. "If we can finish strong with those guys, I think it will give us a lot of confidence going into next year."

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.