PITTSBURGH • The Pittsburgh Pirates and PNC Park had waited 11 seasons for such a street party. A sold-out three-game weekend series with the locals in first place by percentage points awaited the Cardinals. The only thing missing were balloons, some face painting and - oh, yeah - a survivable first inning.
Playing heavies in a Capra script about a small-market franchise seeking its first winning season since 1992, the Cardinals used a lightning attack against Pirates lefthander Paul Maholm to take a 4-0 lead after only 16 pitches.
The predictable combination of starting pitcher Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols helped turn the North Shore street party into a show of force by a team that managed 15 hits, including 14 first-inning total bases.
"It was awesome," right fielder Lance Berkman said both about the night's atmosphere and its outcome, a 6-4 Cardinals win that featured eight tough innings from Carpenter and a tidy ninth from closer Fernando Salas.
Pujols and third baseman David Freese each produced two-run homers during what became Maholm's ruinous first inning. Numbers compiled during the Pirates' bad old days were equally applicable with them in first place.
Carpenter - 5-0 with a 2.15 ERA in his last six starts and suddenly second in the National League in innings pitched - improved his career dominance over the Pirates to 12-2 in 17 starts. He carried less than his best stuff into Friday's outing but survived a string of four straight hits during a two-run second inning and five consecutive during a two-run sixth that pulled the Bucs to within 5-4.
Pujols carries the deed to PNC. He raised his average in 83 games at the spacious park to .393 with a 1.118 combined on-base and slugging percentage built atop 27 home runs, most by any visiting player in the place.
Pujols' first-inning launch more closely resembled a power fade tee shot than his 22nd home run as it cleared the second-base side of the center field fence.
Freese's two hits and fourth home run snapped a one-for-20 skid that included a number of hard outs. "I just haven't been getting any results," he said. "Knocks are there but the
production's not. I'm just sticking with what I've been doing. Results will come."
The Pirates took 95 games to reach Friday's crescendo as a crowd of 38,490 crammed inside a stadium that will host three sellouts this weekend.
It took the Cardinals only 15 pitches following a 31-minute weather delay to ruin the party.
Maholm had gone 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA in his last four starts at PNC Park. After retiring leadoff hitter Ryan Theriot on an eight-pitch strikeout, Maholm found himself trailing 4-0 with the Cardinals hitting for the cycle in his next eight.
"He left the ball up and we took advantage," Pujols said. "After that he settled down and we scored only one more run" against him.
Center fielder Jon Jay began the first-inning barrage with a triple to right field. Pujols' first-pitch blast was followed by Berkman's double over third base and Freese's first-pitch, opposite-field shot. Catcher Yadier Molina began a three-hit night with a lined single to complete the inning's cycle against Maholm.
"The guy is aggressive. He throws strikes. We just try to put good swings on the strikes. And we did tonight," Molina said.
"Human nature says this is a series guys are going to get fired up for," manager Tony La Russa said. "Our goal is to get fired up for (Thursday) afternoon (when the Cardinals beat the Mets). We do a really good job of that. It's as simple as accumulating wins."
The win lifted the Cardinals into a virtual tie with the Pirates, who began the night leading the NL Central by percentage points over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals improved to 3-4 on a road trip that has featured two walk-off losses.
The Pirates entered ranked fifth in the National League in ERA despite a league-least 586 strikeouts and an unexceptional .254 opponents batting average. However, none of their starters carries anything higher than a 4.15 ERA while closer Joel Hanrahan is perfect in 26 save chances this season.
The Pirates (51-46) remain in search of their first winning season since 1992, when they lost a seven-game National League Championship Series to the Atlanta Braves on a ninth-inning swing by since-forgotten backup catcher Francisco Cabrera. The Pirates moved into their current palace in 2001 but have since played mostly before high school-sized crowds jaded by tight-fisted ownership.
Friday's loss left the Pirates with consecutive losses for the first time since July 1-2. Before Friday, they had gained 7½ games on the Cardinals since June 6.
"You could see that coming a couple years ago," Pujols said, naming the young players who have factored in the Pirates' recent ascent. "It's really exciting to have all the fans back. It was like back in St. Louis. No matter how we play, our stadium is packed. It's awesome to have support like that."
"That's the kind of environment you want to play baseball in," Berkman said.
Carpenter allowed 10 hits and walked one. "It was a battle all night. There's no question I didn't have my best stuff but I was able to make pitches when I had to," he said.
La Russa denied solely basing his second-half rotation upon this series. However, he admitted not giving the ball to Carpenter in the second-half opener against the Cincinnati Reds so he could face the Pirates.
"I tried to give us the best chance to win," noted Carpenter, who lasted 108 pitches and contributed two hits, including a third-inning RBI. "They're playing well. It's a packed house. They're super-excited. I've been coming here a long time. It's a beautiful ballpark, but they've never had a lot of fans here. I was telling (Pirates first baseman Lyle) Overbay how neat it was to come here and see all these fans here."
La Russa warmed Mitchell Boggs in the seventh inning and Boggs and lefthander Raul Valdes in the eighth in case Carpenter allowed a baserunner. He didn't.
Molina provided an important add-on with his eighth-inning home run against reliever Chris Resop before Salas, bruised by a walk-off home run earlier on the road trip, worked the ninth inning for his 18th save in 21 chances.