(Sports Network) - After enduring 18 straight losing seasons and countless last place finishes in the NL Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in an odd position on July 16 -- in first place.
Percentage points ahead of St. Louis in the NL Central, the Pirates are in first in the division this late in a season for the first time since 1997 when they were in first on July 17. That year's team finished 79-83, but this time around a young nucleus of talent has the Pirates on top and Paul Maholm could put the Bucs in first place alone tonight against the Houston Astros in the second test of a three-game series from Minute Maid Park.
The 29-year-old Maholm, who has given up one earned run in each of his last two starts -- both wins --, will be on the mound this evening. The lefty held down the Astros over six innings on July 4, and then six days later shut down the Cubs in a 9-1 victory.
Maholm has gone 3-1 with a 1.04 ERA in six starts against National League Central teams this year. He has more career wins (11) against the Astros than any other opponent. His 11-6 mark in 19 games against Houston includes a 1-0 record with a 1.38 ERA this season.
Bud Norris, who is 3-4 with a 3.74 ERA in seven games against the Pirates, counters for Houston. The right-hander is coming off a victory in Pittsburgh on July 6 when he allowed seven hits and two runs in seven innings.
Last night, Jeff Karstens tossed a five-hit shutout and Andrew McCutchen added a two-run triple in Pittsburgh's 4-0 win.
"'Cutch' is swinging the bat as well as anybody right now," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "He's in such a good place he's seeing the ball, getting good looks and hitting it all over."
Karstens (8-4) turned in his fifth straight positive decision and recorded his first complete-game whitewash since 2008. He needed just 83 pitches (64 for strikes) to finish the outing.
The victory, combined with the Cardinals' loss in Cincinnati moved the teams into a virtual tie atop the NL Central. Milwaukee is a half-game back and Cincinnati is three games off the pace.
Neil Walker added an RBI single and Alex Presley scored twice for the Pirates, who have won six of their last eight.
Brett Myers (3-10) worked six innings in the loss, allowing five hits and three runs despite striking out a season-high 11 batters for the Astros, who fell to 1-10 in July.
Pittsburgh is 8-2 this season against the Astros and swept a three-game set at Minute Maid Park in its last visit from June 14-16.