Go figure ...
One night, the Pirates get mowed down by a pitcher with an 8.31 ERA.
The next, they bench their top two RBI producers and beat up on the pitcher with the National League's best ERA, chasing Houston's Wandy Rodriguez on five runs over 4 2/3 innings to flatten the Astros, 7-4, last night before a standing-room-only crowd of 37,167 at PNC Park.
"Baseball's a funny game, I guess," third baseman Andy LaRoche said. "Look at how this one ended."
Well, wait a minute. There was more in the go-figure category ...
Jeff Karstens, unable to top six innings in his first eight starts, turned in his finest showing with seven innings, two runs and an efficient pitch count of 87, including 60 strikes.
And, maybe most surprising in its own way, closer Matt Capps, returning from the vicious liner that bruised his elbow Monday just six days ago in Chicago, got the final out for his 10th save.
"What a feeling, personally, just to be out there on the mound," Capps said. "I'm just happy it all worked out."
OK, now to the ending ...
• Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (3-1, 4.11) vs. RHP Mike Hampton (2-4, 5.62).
• Key matchup: Maholm has dominated Houston's two biggest bats: Carlos Lee is 4 for 24 against him, Lance Berkman 3 for 18, and neither has an extra-base hit.
• Of note: Best average with runners in scoring position among the Pirates' regulars is Nate McLouth's .347. He is 17 for 49 with three home runs.
The Pirates carried a 7-2 lead into the ninth, thanks to two insurance runs in the eighth that removed Capps' save situation and prompted manager John Russell to summon Tom Gorzelanny instead.
With two quick outs, the ending appeared academic until Gorzelanny gave up a walk, a double and another walk to load the bases. The man on deck represented the tying run and, thus, it was a save situation. So, enter Capps.
"Can't remember the last time I came into a game like that," Capps said.
It would show: Capps hit Miguel Tejada and walked Lance Berkman another for two runs before getting Carlos Lee to a 2-2 count and, with the crowd on its feet and roaring, a groundout to second that ended the Pirates' three-game losing streak.
"I was too emotional, too amped up," Capps said. "Took a little time to settle."
The Pirates' offense did the opposite, going aggressively at Rodriguez and his 1.71 ERA by having their first five batters reach safely and building a 3-0 lead on RBI singles by Freddy Sanchez and Craig Monroe, and a sacrifice fly by Robinzon Diaz.
Two more RBI singles in the fifth by Delwyn Young and Diaz, after two outs, prompted Houston manager Cecil Cooper to pull Rodriguez with a season-worst line of five earned runs, nine hits and three walks.
There was a high pitch count of 105, too, but that likely had little to do with the Pirates' approach, given that hitting coach Don Long met with the players in the afternoon to stress a back-to-basics lesson of being prepared to hit with the first pitch. The lineup as a whole had looked passive to Long, Russell and surely most everyone else who witnessed the 6-1 loss to immensely struggling Brian Moehler the previous night.
"We were much more aggressive," Russell said of this one. "Ready to hit every pitch."
The Pirates swung at the first pitch only nine times in 34 at-bats, but that clearly was not the intent.
"We always want them to be ready to hit it," Long said. "Be ready to take a swing until your eyes tell you differently."
Perhaps just to be sure things would be different, Russell gave a rare jolt to the lineup: Struggling Nate McLouth and Adam LaRoche were benched, steady Andy LaRoche was bumped up from his usual No. 6 spot to No. 2, and bench men Monroe, Young and Eric Hinske were inserted.
Hinske had three singles and a walk, Jack Wilson two doubles, Andy LaRoche and Sanchez two hits each as part of the team's total of 13.
Rodriguez's ERA now: 2.26.
"I missed my location in the first inning," Rodriguez said. "That was my problem."
Karstens employed an aggressive approach of his own, pounding the zone for 19 first-pitch strikes to his 27 batters. No less important, he finally was able to mix a finely located fastball with an effective changeup and curve, whereas previous starts had seen one or more missing.
"It was only a matter of time, I guess," Karstens said, smiling.
This made for four decent starts in a row -- his ERA has fallen from 5.85 to 4.83 -- beginning with the one in New York that followed nearly losing his place in the rotation.
"I had to look at myself in the mirror, and that's made all the difference."
Loudest roar of the night -- in addition to those let out when fans learned the Penguins scored their lone goal in Detroit -- went to center fielder Nyjer Morgan for a diving catch of pinch-hitter Darin Erstad's liner in the seventh, one on which his left temple struck the ground with enough force to daze him momentarily..
That, plus an 0-for-4 night at the plate with three strikeouts ...
"Tough day at the office," Morgan said.