HOUSTON -- The Pirates may still need to add a power hitter to their lineup in order to become a legitimate contender in the National League Central Division, but they already have proven they can win a lot of games by playing small ball.
Their speed was again on full display Friday night early in the game as the Pirates used it to quickly build a three-run lead then relied on that top-shelf pitching from Jeff Karstens, who threw a complete-game shutout, and defense to beat the Astros, 4-0, before a crowd of 27,787 at Minute Maid Park.
More important, the victory, combined with St. Louis's 6-5 loss to Cincinnati and Milwaukee's 4-0 loss to Colorado, means the Pirates (48-43) are in first place by percentage points over the Cardinals (49-44).
Game: Pirates vs. Astros, 7:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park, Houston.
TV, radio: Root Sports; WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-9, 2.96) vs. RHP Bud Norris (5-6, 3.46).
Key matchup: Norris has allowed only six earned runs in 21 innings in three starts against the Pirates this season.
Of note: Maholm is 5-2 in his past seven decisions with a 2.25 ERA.
The Brewers (50-44) are a half-game behind.
This is the latest in a season the Pirates have been in first-place since July 17, 1997, though they ended up finishing in second that year.
"It will be July 16 [today]," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said in a cautionary tone when told his team will be in first place. "We're just keeping things where they need to be. We just need to play our game and continue to prepare and focus and see where it takes us."
Of course, in order to win playing small ball, a team needs to be able to rely on excellent pitching and solid defense, and the Pirates clearly have excelled in both areas this season, particularly given how well the starters have pitched almost every game.
It was the Pirates' four consecutive victory at Minute Maid Park, marking the first time they have won four games in a row in Houston since they won five in a row in 2007.
One thing is for certain -- if the Pirates continue to get the kind of pitching that Karstens gave them Friday night, they not only will remain in contention for the division title, they might be considered the favorite.
That's because Karstens (8-4) had what Hurdle called "one of the best pitched games" he has seen in a while. He threw only 83 pitches, 64 for strikes, and allowed only five hits. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was only the sixth time since '02 and first since '09 that a pitcher threw a complete-game and did so in 83 pitches or fewer.
He was in complete control for the entire game -- though he did need a double-play ball off the bat of Brett Wallace to escape a jam in the seventh. He was charged with two earned runs or fewer for the 12th time in his past 13 starts.
"When you take into account the pitches thrown -- 21 out of 30 first-pitch strikes, and got the leadoff hitter six out of nine innings, just a couple three-ball counts ... " Hurdle said. "The defense helped him out a couple of times but that was a masterful outing."
Karstens also became the first Pirates pitcher to win five consecutive decisions since Matt Capps did it in '06 and the first starter to do it since Ian Snell did it that same year.
And his formula for success against the Astros is the same as it has been all season -- throw strikes.
In fact, in his past two games, Karstens has thrown 136 of his 178 pitches for strikes.
"I was just able to make some pitches," Karstens said. "Sometimes you have those nights, I could throw those same pitches tomorrow and give up seven runs. It is just baseball. I'm just being aggressive, trying to throw good quality pitches and not throw balls down the middle, and I've been able to do that over the past couple of months, and it has paid off for me."
While Karstens took care of the Astros, the Pirates used their speed to wreak havoc on the base paths.
Alex Presley got things started in the first inning.He led off with a single, stole second with no problem and tagged up and moved to third on a flyout to right field by Chase d'Arnaud. Presley then scored on a single by Neil Walker.
In the third, Presley was hit by a pitch and d'Arnaud singled to give the Pirates two runners on and nobody out.
Andrew McCutchen hit his team-high fourth triple to drive in both runners.
"Our speed definitely puts a lot of pressure on the defense," said Presley who scored two runs and had one of three stolen bases. "You see them start to rush throws and have to rush plays and it can take a pitcher off his game because he has to worry about it. So it definitely gets them thinking."
The Pirates have won eight of their past nine against the Astros, and while Karstens numbers were impressive, the pitching staff had recorded a 2.56 ERA (23 earned runs in 81 innings) against the Astros going into Friday night, and that included a 2.24 ERA by the starters in those games.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.