(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.
"'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.
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.