HOUSTON -- Here is a little secret the Pirates might not want anyone to know: They perform more confidently, perhaps even more passionately, behind competent starting pitching.
Which is to say, they perform better behind Paul Maholm.
Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit homered, the resuscitated offense mounted 11 hits, and Jose Bautista's amazing spear-and-throw highlighted some fine defense in an 8-2 humbling of the Houston Astros last night at Minute Maid Park.
He anchored it all with eight exemplary innings, giving up one late run on five hits, none for extra bases. He got 12 ground-ball outs, struck out five, walked one and never sweated in improving to 7-6, including 5-1 in his past 10 starts with a 3.18 ERA.
And be quite sure that his teammates, many of whom have become increasingly exasperated by the poor pitching from most of the rest of the staff, appreciated it.
"Paul Maholm is just a breath of fresh air every time he takes the mound," Doumit put it, bluntly as always. "We know he's going to give us a chance to win. When he's out there, he's a gamer. We love it. We feel confident."
- Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 2:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
- TV/Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (3-7, 5.92) vs. RHP Brian Moehler (5-4, 4.03).
- Key matchup: Moehler blows away no one, but he has been Houston's best of late. That includes holding the Chicago Cubs to one run, four hits over seven innings Saturday.
- Of note: The Pirates have won 16 times in their final at-bat, most since the 2004 team did it 17 times.
"When he's out there, we all feel it," Bautista said. "He's going after guys, not falling behind. He's throwing all his pitches for strikes. He's keeping people off balance. He's not afraid of contact. He's not trying to strike everybody out. "Hopefully, he can keep doing it, and some of our other pitchers can go from his example."
OK, so maybe this really is no secret here at all.
Manager John Russell was asked, too, if his team performs better behind Maholm.
"Oh, definitely," he replied. "I don't know if you can actually see it. But I know, when I played and we knew we had a guy starting who was going to keep you in the game, you feel like you have a chance to win. I remember playing with Steve Carlton, and we knew if we did our job, he'd do his. That's what Paulie's starting to supply for us."
Maholm described that as a two-way avenue, saying he fed off his defense in this one.
"When I'm on, I work quick, stay in the zone and keep the guys in the game," he said. "It's awesome to watch. I love seeing the ball hit on the ground, watching the guys make plays. That's fun for me."
The defensive gem, perhaps the best of the year in a Pittsburgh uniform, was made by Bautista in the fourth: Kazuo Matsui hit a high chopper that appeared certain to get over the third baseman's head and down the left-field line. But Bautista leaped to backhand it well into foul territory, spun in midair and fired a laser across the diamond that beat Matsui by two steps.
Even some partisans in the crowd of 33,996 applauded the effort.
Best play of his career?
"I don't know," Bautista said, grinning. "I think the ball was foul, so maybe."
PG Audio: Catcher Ryan Doumit, on how Maholm's teammates appreciate him
PG Audio: Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm after beating Houston
Offensively, the Pirates were no less fluid, consistently pounding minor league recall Jack Cassel from the outset.
In the first inning, Sanchez began his third consecutive three-hit game by rapping Cassel's first-pitch fastball over the tall wall in left-center for his seventh home run. Second base umpire Tim Timmons initially ruled a double, but Russell succeeded in getting the entire crew to confer, and they ruled it a home run. The ball apparently struck a metal railing just above the yellow stripe atop the wall.
"With the metallic sound it made, it could only have been the railing," Russell said.
Xavier Nady doubled and later scored another run in the second. McLouth's 20th home run, another fastball sent to deep center, made it 3-0 in the third. And four more hits in the fifth chased Cassel, including RBI singles by Sanchez and Bay that made it 5-0.
Two innings later, Doumit's 12th home run was a three-run rainbow that clanked off the base of the train tracks about 60 feet above the left-field boxes.
Through it all, Maholm pounded the zone with all four pitches and held the Astros scoreless through six innings on two singles. He might have gone the distance, too, even with a pitch count of 108, had he not been struck by line drives with his final two batters of the eighth: Michael Bourn singled off his right shin, and Lance Berkman grounded out of his right forearm.
"Target practice was over," Maholm said with a smile.
He exited with an 8-1 lead.
Maholm expressed a wish to see the Pirates play more solid overall games such as this one, but he also displayed a keen understanding of why they have not.
"The offense has been there,. and it's frustrating to know that we as a staff have let the team down," he said. "We need to turn it around."
Ian Snell will pitch this afternoon as the Pirates go for their first series sweep since taking three from the San Francisco Giants May 6-8 and, remarkably, their first three-game winning streak since taking six in a row May 6-12.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published July 23, 2008 4:00 AM