ST. LOUIS -- No holy grail under the Arch, either.
Presented with their second shot at .500 this week, the Pirates instead got a muddled start from Paul Maholm and mustered little at the plate in a 5-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last night at Busch Stadium.
They had a total of four hits, just half of those in Todd Wellemeyer's seven-plus innings, and were held without an extra-base hit for the first time all season.
A victory would have marked the Pirates' latest point in a season at .500 since June 11, 2005, but their record dropped back to 19-21. With the same scenario Monday at home, they fell with an equivalent thud, 8-1, to the Atlanta Braves.
- Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 1:15 p.m., Busch Stadium.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (2-2, 4.53) vs. RHP Joel Pineiro (2-2, 4.05).
- Key matchup: Snell relishes challenging Albert Pujols, but Pujols has the upper hand: He is 11 for 19 with four home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs. Just one strikeout.
- Of note: Nate McLouth is the first center fielder in the Pirates' history to hit 10 home runs before May 15. The most recent player at any position to have that many at the same point was Brian Giles in 2000, who hit his 10th on May 13.
Not that anyone directly involved seemed focused much on that ...
"That's not my goal," manager John Russell said of .500, a mark the franchise last achieved over a full season in 1992. "If you pick .500 as a goal, where do you go from there? We've never looked at .500 as where we want to be."
It does come up, though.
"We try to tell the players: Don't look at .500. Look beyond .500," Russell continued. "We're trying to stay focused on what we need to do each day, and we've done a good job of that all year."
"I don't think .500 is anything we'll pop a champagne bottle over."
For the most part, the players have made little fuss about any aspect of their recent resurgence.
Or, as first baseman Adam LaRoche put it when asked about .500, "What's our record?"
He was serious.
"We're just looking at playing well and continuing to win. That's our focus. Not numbers. Those will take care of themselves."
Maholm allowed a season-high 14 baserunners -- 11 hits and three walks -- in his six innings, and never went 1-2-3. Still, all concerned, including the opposition, insisted he performed better than his line, if only because he limited the damage to four runs.
"He gave up a lot of hits, but he kept the game in reach," Russell said. "He looked like he was just missing on some pitches."
Counterpart Tony La Russa, whose Cardinals stranded 15, had a similar stance.
"We got guys on base, but we couldn't do much off Maholm," La Russa said. "We had a very hard time squaring the ball against him."
Maholm acknowledged taking some solace in that aspect.
"I'd rather pitch badly and win, but I thought I threw well," he said. "I felt good."
His home-road disparity widened again: He is 4-0 with a 2.74 ERA at PNC Park, 0-4 with an 8.58 ERA everywhere else. The most recent road victory came Aug. 23 of last year.
"If I'd come out here and not thrown well, I'd wonder about that," Maholm said. "But that wasn't the case."
Wellemeyer, a large part of a surprising St. Louis rotation after being converted from relief last year, was in total control in improving to 4-1: He struck out five, never allowed more than a runner at a time, and the only run charged to him came after his exit in the eighth.
Two balls were struck with authority off Wellemeyer in the second, a Xavier Nady drive to the track and LaRoche's stolen home run -- Rick Ankiel sensationally leaped to catch it above the fence -- but that was about it.
"After that inning, he hit his spots with the fastball, and his breaking ball was sharp," Russell said. "He pretty much dominated the game from there."
Wellemeyer said the key since his conversion has been sustained focus.
"You can get out there and start thinking about too many things," he said. "You have to really calm your mind down and let your body work."
The Cardinals scored once each in the second and third, making little of four hits and two Maholm walks, but they doubled that lead to 4-0 in a chaotic sixth.
Brendan Ryan opened with a swinging-bunt single. Brian Barton's painfully slow bouncer found its way into center field, over Maholm's glove and between shortstop Luis Rivas and second baseman Freddy Sanchez, the latter positioned to pull. Ankiel popped up to shallow left, and Rivas, the only one with a play, stopped and let it drop because he thought Jason Bay was in the area. He was not.
Sacrifice flies by Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick brought two runs, when there could have been four outs.
"Weird inning," Russell said.
"Three cheap hits," Maholm said.
The Pirates scored their lone run in the eighth on three hits, including Nate McLouth's RBI bloop into left, but newcomer Marino Salas gave that back in the bottom half on three St. Louis hits.
Also squandered on this night, by the way, was a chance to go to Chicago this weekend with a chance to play for first place. Instead, the Cubs moved back to five games ahead.
Ian Snell pitches the rubber match against the Cardinals this afternoon.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published May 15, 2008 4:00 AM