For two months, Jeff Karstens had to watch from the disabled list as the Pirates assembled their season. A sore shoulder, then a hip flexor issue, prevented him from joining the fun.
Since his return, he has wasted little time in contributing to a roster that continues to notch wins and battle for the National League Central Division lead.
Karstens crumpled up and disposed of a shaky first inning Sunday in another masterful outing, during which he prevented the Miami Marlins from doing much of anything at the plate. The result was a 3-0 win at PNC Park, giving the Pirates their fifth win in a row and fourth series sweep of the season. They are 14 games over .500.
"My body feels good," said Karstens, wearing a smile after the game. "I feel like I'm in a really happy place on the mound."
Karstens (3-2) pitched seven scoreless innings and allowed five hits and two walks, striking out three. Sunday was the fourth consecutive start in which he pitched at least seven innings. That encompasses every start since his return from the disabled list except his first, when he allowed six earned runs and 11 hits in five innings June 25 against the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Any time I can give the bullpen a little bit of a break, it's the biggest job a starter can do," said Karstens, who as a former reliever appreciated days off.
Karstens had some trouble in the first, but escaped without allowing a run. Jose Reyes hit an infield single, but Karstens picked him off first base. Emilio Bonifacio had another infield single and Carlos Lee walked before Logan Morrison reached on a fielder's choice. Justin Ruggiano walked, but Greg Dobbs flied out to end the inning.
After the first, Karstens said, he told infield coach Nick Leyva that he wanted third baseman Pedro Alvarez and the infielders to play in, thus counteracting the speed of Reyes and Bonifacio.
"The next time Bonifacio came up he hit that high grounder," Karstens said. "I was like, 'Please don't go over his head, now I'm going to look like an idiot.' I just feel like with their speed, anything that's chopped slowly right there, you're not going to get them out at first."
Karstens retired 14 of the next 15 batters he faced after the first. He allowed a single to Ruggiano in the fourth, but a double play erased him.
Karstens allowed a leadoff single to Morrison in the seventh, and Morrison stole second. Dobbs lined a ball into the left-center field gap that Alex Presley appeared to catch as he dived to his left, but the ball squirted out as he landed.
"I did, and then I didn't," Presley said of making the catch. "I tried to sell it as good as I could."
The umpires eventually overturned the call, but Morrison stayed on second. On the next pitch, Karstens got Omar Infante to ground into a double play and end the inning.
The Pirates were at the whim of Marlins starter Anibal Sanchez for much of the game. He allowed three runs in seven innings.
Andrew McCutchen's RBI single scored a run in the first, and the Pirates padded their lead in the seventh. Casey McGehee led off with a double before Alvarez hit his 21st home run, on an 0-1 breaking ball that sailed over the wall in right field. Those with the best view knew right away: Alvarez took a step or two before beginning his trot, A.J. Burnett threw his hands up in the dugout and Sanchez (5-7) commenced a frustrated 360-degree spin immediately after the ball left the bat.
"Pedro can't hit a ball any harder than that," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Alvarez is 7 for 23 in his past six games with four home runs.
"The whole game, we didn't have anything going," Alvarez said. "The fact that Casey leads off with a leadoff double, it was huge to get the job done there. Whenever we can get the execution down and get those timely hits, we'll win more ballgames than not."
The Pirates remain a half-game behind the Cincinnati Reds, who completed a sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers Sunday and have won 11 of their past 13 games. Today, the Pirates open a three-game series at home against the Chicago Cubs, who have lost four of six, were outscored, 23-1, in a sweep by the St. Louis Cardinals over the weekend and haven't scored a run since Friday in the second inning.
"I just can't say enough about what our team's done," Karstens said. "I still think people doubt us, but you know, it's fine. Nobody in here doubts anybody in here."
• Game: Cubs vs. Pirates, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: Root Sports, KDKA-FM 93.7.
• Probables: RHP Jeff Samardzija (6-8, 4.57) vs. LHP Erik Bedard (5-10, 4.55).