One night after watching his offense fall flat against struggling Astros starter Brian Moehler, Russell went with a right-handed-heavy, new-look lineup for the second game of the three-game set.
In went Eric Hinske, Craig Monroe and Delwyn Young. Out were Adam LaRoche, Brandon Moss and Nate McLouth, who had the day off. Third baseman Andy LaRoche, who finished 2-for-4 with a walk, moved up to the No. 2 spot in the order, the first time that he hit higher than fifth this season.
Russell's shuffle paid off immediately, as the Pirates jumped on Houston's Wandy Rodriguez for three first-inning runs. Nyjer Morgan worked his sixth leadoff walk of the season to get things started, and four straight singles followed. Freddy Sanchez and Monroe each drove in one with their base hits. The final run of the inning came on Robinzon Diaz's sacrifice fly.
"Our pitching has been doing well lately, and we haven't been putting up the runs like we should have," Andy LaRoche said. "It's great to give [Karstens] a little cushion to start the game."
Two walks and a string of hits in the fifth padded the Pirates' lead, which by that time had narrowed to one run. Two-out singles by Young, whose line drive was just out of the reach of third baseman Jeff Keppinger, and Diaz drove in one run apiece and knocked Rodriguez from the game. Rodriguez hadn't given up more than three earned runs in any of his 10 season starts.
The Pirates' offense, aptly described as somewhat schizophrenic this month, continues to baffle with its production. Consider that in 28 games in May, the seemingly all-or-nothing crew has had five or fewer hits eight times, yet has banged out at least 11 in 12 games.
"I think hitting is contagious," LaRoche said. "It's just one of those things -- the pitcher might get down if he gives up a hit or two, and he might start leaving the ball up to the next hitter. Or as a hitter, when there are guys on, you can get locked in a little bit more."
The offense's sudden burst of life made a winner of Karstens, who came in as one of three Pirates starters without a win in May. Sunday starter Paul Maholm and Ian Snell had joined him with that dubious distinction.
In what was arguably Karstens' best start of the season, the right-hander went a season-high seven innings and showed remarkable efficiency. He went to a three-ball count only twice against the 27 hitters he faced. He walked just one and threw first-pitch strikes 19 times.
"He threw the ball extremely well," Russell said. "His changeup is getting better. He's spotting his fastball more effectively now. That gives him a lot more weapons to work with."
Karstens successfully dodged the big inning that has hurt him many times this season, scattering four doubles, two singles and the walk. But he spent few words lauding his performance in his postgame media session, instead reverting back to his need to be more consistent from that fifth spot in the rotation.
"I knew from the beginning my job was on the line," said Karstens, who snapped a six-game winless streak. "It was more of a reality check. [I] really had to look at myself and ask myself if I was doing everything I could to be ready to pitch -- taking a step forward and doing what I need to do to prepare myself.
"It's a good rotation. You don't want to be the guy not pitching well."
Karstens' night would be capped by a spectacular defensive catch by Morgan, who laid out to make a diving grab with a runner on base with two down in the seventh, much to the pleasure of the sellout crowd.
"I got a little lump on my head," Morgan joked afterward.
Karstens wouldn't officially have his win until the end of an adventurous ninth, which began with the Pirates holding a five-run lead, only to end with the potential tying run on first. After the Pirates tacked on two insurance runs in the eighth, Tom Gorzelanny began the ninth with two quick outs but was yanked after allowing three straight runners to reach.
In came Matt Capps, making his return after a scary incident on Monday, when he was hit on the right elbow with a line drive. It wasn't pretty on Saturday, as only five of Capps' 13 pitches were strikes. But after hitting one batter and walking another with the bases loaded, Capps secured the final out of the game.
"Maybe it was just a little too much adrenaline, a little too much fire," Capps said. "I went from a lot of different emotions when [Monday's incident] first happened, thinking what I thought. To be throwing two days later and to be on the mound five days later is big for me personally."