Turns out, there's a reason they spell Karstens with a K.
Starter Jeff Karstens struck out eight over eight scoreless innings as the Pirates blanked the Houston Astros, 2-0, Thursday night at PNC Park.
With the victory, the Pirates earned their first four-game series sweep since 2006, when they did it to the Milwaukee Brewers from May 29-June 1.
Karstens was masterful in his sixth outing of the season. No Houston baserunner reached third base while he was on the mound, and only two made it to second. He allowed four hits and walked one in his third start since returning from the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Catcher Michael McKenry said Karstens had full control of his arsenal, highlighted by a curveball that dropped just as it reached the plate.
"It looks so good coming out of his hand, and then, boom, it's gone," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Right now, he's got that working, and I think that's the biggest reason for the strikeouts."
He struck out seven in seven innings against St. Louis Saturday in his previous outing. And Thursday night, Karstens again was able to mix his pitch speeds to keep batters guessing. His sinker hit as high as 93 mph on the radar gun while his curveball was as slow as 67.
"They weren't able to square him up," Hurdle said. "It's just off the end, it's just underneath it, you just top it. You come back shaking your head. You can't wait to hit him the next time. At the end of the night, you don't have anything to show for it."
Karstens was paired with McKenry for the second consecutive time after Rod Barajas was scratched from the lineup late with lingering discomfort in his left knee, where he sustained a bruised bone June 25. But the late change did not throw Karstens off his plan.
"I can't say enough about what McKenry's doing behind the plate," Karstens said. "[He] did a really good job of telling me what I wanted to do."
The two pored over their notes in the clubhouse before the game, comparing past experiences, scouting reports and observations from video.
"We just talk a lot," McKenry said.
"We're good friends and we just feed off each other."
In their past 10 games, the Pirates (46-36) are 8-2, while the Astros (32-51) have lost eight consecutive games. Houston was swept in a four-game series against the Chicago Cubs heading into their series against the Pirates.
But this win looked awfully reminiscent of how the Pirates managed victories in the first two months of the season, when strong pitching dominated and the offense struggled to scrape enough runs together.
"That's how it's going to be sometimes," Garrett Jones said. "You're not going to score eight, nine runs every game.
"To be able to only score two runs and still get the win, that's good teamwork and great pitching."
Jones had a hand in both of the runs -- he scored the first and drove in the second.
He took a 1-2 pitch in the second and nearly drove it into the seats, bouncing it off the Clemente Wall in right field for a double. The double off a 93-mph fastball was Jones' 13th this season.
Two pitches later, Jones scampered home after Casey McGehee got the end of his barrel on a tailing slider and sent it into shallow right for another double and a 1-0 lead.
In his past eight games, McGehee is hitting .368 with three doubles and five RBIs.
Houston starter Bud Norris pitched well, allowing two earned runs and five hits in seven innings, striking out six and walking three.
"He didn't make a lot of mistakes," Drew Sutton said.
But, when he did, the Pirates capitalized, tagging four of their five hits against him for doubles.
The Pirates added their second run in the third. Karstens led off with a single and moved to third when Neil Walker doubled to left. He scored on Jones' sacrifice fly to deep left.
The RBI was Jones' 37th this season, which ties him for third most on the team with Walker.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and on Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 6, 2012 4:00 AM