Behind another brilliant outing from Paul Maholm, the Pirates coasted to an 8-2 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday that has Houston set up to potentially secure its first road sweep of the season.
The momentum of Monday's seven-run ninth carried over on the offensive end. However, with the dismal track record of the club's starting pitching this season, it has to be Maholm who is credited first.
As has become customary, he gave the bullpen a night to catch its breath. Throwing his heavy sinker and breaking pitches for strikes with ease, Maholm finished eight innings for the sixth time this season and the third time this month. No other Pittsburgh starter has an eight-inning outing to his credit.
"Maholm's been a breath of fresh air," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "He's been our ace the majority of the year. We love it when he's out there."
Maholm needed only 106 pitches to finish those eight frames, two of which saw the Astros go in order on fewer than 10 pitches. Five singles and one two-out run would be the extent of the damage done against the Pittsburgh lefty.
"The thing he did tonight was he maintained his command and mixed his pitches," manager John Russell said. "He did a nice job using both sides, mixing his pitches."
Maholm started by retiring the first 10 Houston hitters he saw and had a stretch where he retired seven straight later in the game. The start was reminiscent of Maholm's previous one -- in which he retired the first nine Colorado batters in order on Thursday. But this time, he didn't waver in the middle innings.
"I was just making sure I stayed focused and stayed down in the zone, mixing speeds," said Maholm, who leads the staff with seven wins. "My goal was just to keep the ball down."
His 14 groundball outs were evidence of success in that area. And Maholm stayed aggressive in his approach even when falling behind in the count.
The only thing that didn't go his way were two hard-hit balls in the eighth -- one hit off his forearm, the other bounced hard off his right shin. Though he walked off the mound with a slight hesitation in his step after being hit on the leg, serious injury was avoided.
"We were playing target practice there in the end," joked Maholm afterward. "No runs were scored. I got an assist on the play. So we're good."
Maholm was handed an early cushion to work with, as the offense ran Astros starter Jack Cassel from the game by tagging him for runs in four of the first five innings.
The run-scoring method changed from a deluge to a more methodical approach between Monday and Tuesday. Regardless of the method, the result was the same. And the home runs kept flying.
It started with the team's hottest hitter, Freddy Sanchez, who had capped off Monday's win with a three-run inside-the-parker. He returned on Tuesday to line the first pitch he saw from Cassel off the left-field facade.
The home run was initially ruled a double, but at the request of Russell, second base umpire Tim Timmons elicited the help of the rest of the umpiring crew. While it was hard to spot exactly where the ball hit even on replays, Russell argued that that sound of the ricochet signaled home run.
"It was tough to see, but the sound when it hit the railing was a definite metal sound," Russell said. "Below that would make a totally different sound."
The umpiring crew agreed, and Sanchez was credited with his seventh homer of the season.
Two innings later, Nate McLouth took Cassel deep for his 20th homer of the season, tying Jason Bay for the team lead.
And not to be outdone, Doumit hit the most impressive shot of them all, launching a ball off the train tracks that sit atop the arched facade. And yes, that facade is above the left-field stands.
"Pitch right there and I got wood on that," he succinctly quipped.
It was the fourth homer Doumit has hit from the right side of the plate this season. He had just one in his career entering the season.
"He's developed into a dangerous hitter -- not only left-handed, but also right-handed," Russell said. "It's a great thing to have in your lineup."
The three home runs gave the Pirates 12 in their past four games at Minute Maid Park.
The offense, though, wasn't limited to the moon shots. Xavier Nady doubled and scored in the second, while Bay and Sanchez also added RBI singles. Bay, Doumit and Sanchez finished with multihit games.
"Hitting is contagious, and we've got some thunder in this lineup," Doumit said. "That Colorado series was a tough one for us, but we have kind of found our swings again in the second half and we want to keep going."
And on the defensive end, Jose Bautista made a sensational play on a fourth-inning grounder hit by the Astros' speedy leadoff man, Kazuo Matsui. After jumping to field the ball and landing in foul territory, Bautista made a strong off-balance throw to nail Matsui and make the highlight reel on a night when the infield defense was nearly flawless all around.