Paul Maholm became the latest slumping pitcher to shut down the fast-fading Cardinals, pitching effectively over seven innings, and the Pirates won their season-high fourth in a row 5-2 on Tuesday night.
The Pirates remain two losses away from their first 100-loss season since 2001, but are 4-0 on a homestand that began with a three-game sweep of Arizona. Pittsburgh hadn't won that many in a row since a five-game run from Aug. 17-22, 2009, against the Brewers and Reds.
"The staff has settled in a little bit, guys are playing hard, and they still have goals in mind they'd like to accomplish," manager John Russell said. "It's good they're not just looking forward to that last day [of the season] in Florida and in heading off to the offseason. They're still playing hard and still competing."
For the Cardinals, elimination is near. Their 24th loss in 36 games and Cincinnati's 4-3 win over Milwaukee dropped their magic number for elimination in the NL Central to four.
The Cardinals probably didn't see this coming when they were in first place on Aug. 14, a few days after sweeping three in Cincinnati, but their season has come undone while facing teams and pitchers with poor records. They have dropped their last seven series against teams under .500.
They also keep being beaten by pitchers with elevated ERAs. A day after falling 4-0 to Florida's Chris Volstad, who began the game with a 5.11 ERA, they couldn't get to Maholm (8-15), who came into his 31st start of the season with a 5.36 ERA and a six-game losing streak.
"We didn't even get on base [against Volstad]," manager Tony La Russa said. "Today, we had some good at-bats, made a lot of things happen, but we just couldn't break through."
Maholm, who had one win since July 18, gave up runs on Albert Pujols' RBI double in the third and force-play grounder in the fifth but otherwise checked the Cardinals on seven hits, striking out four and walking none. It was his first start without a walk since he beat Houston 9-0 with a three-hitter on July 18.
"I'm a much better pitcher than I've showed and that's the frustrating part," Maholm said. "A lot of people expect me to go deep into games, and obviously I haven't been. Tonight felt normal and hopefully I can finish my last two [starts] like that."
"We're trying to win ballgames, and that's the disappointing part about not pitching well," said Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook, who fell behind 3-0 in the first. "You want to go out there and pitch well and get as many W's as we can and see what happens. To not pitch well and be one of the main reasons that we lose, it's disappointing."
The Pirates, 50 games under .500 when the homestand began Friday, grabbed their early lead when Westbrook walked Neil Walker and Garrett Jones with a runner on to load the bases. Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Doumit singled in runs, and John Bowker was credited with an RBI when his hard-hit grounder roiled up the arm of shortstop Brendan Ryan for an error.
Westbrook, who needed 41 pitches to get through the first, was lifted after yielding five hits and five runs -- one start after he shut out San Diego for eight innings. Two of Westbrook's four losses since being dealt by Cleveland to St. Louis have been in Pittsburgh, which remains on pace to lose more than 100 games for the first time since 1985 despite its modest winning streak.
The Pirates could lose 100 games and have a winning record at home. They are 37-39 at PNC Park, but are a major league worst 15-59 on the road. ... Maholm was 2-9 in his previous 14 starts. ... Pujols is 16 of 24 against Maholm.