After his starts, Jeff Karstens often dons a black T-shirt with a catch phrase from Eastbound & Down’s bombastic star, Kenny Powers: “Arm Like a Damn Rocket, Mind Like a Scientist.”
No one will confuse Karstens‘ right arm with a rocket — he hits 90 on the radar gun with a strong back wind — but few pitchers outsmart hitters like the Bucs‘ swingman-turned-rotation savior.
Karstens schooled the Astros on Tuesday night, going seven strong innings and adding an RBI on a squeeze bunt as the Pirates cruised to a 5-1 win. Brandon Wood went deep and drove in three runs in support of Karstens, who improved to 7-4 and left to a standing ovation in the eighth inning from a crowd of 18,151.
“That’s a first,” Karstens said. “I think yesterday was the first time that I got chills here, and today was the second. This city has been waiting a long time for us to play this well.”
The Cardinals downed the Reds on Tuesday night, and the Brewers lost to the Diamondbacks. That means that the Pirates’ patchwork roster of waiver claims and minor league call-ups now has sole possession of second place in the National League Central standings. Pittsburgh (45-41) is 1.5 games back of division-leading St. Louis.
Karstens allowed seven hits and a single run in seven-plus innings pitched, punching out three batters while walking none. The right-hander, holder of the lowest walk rate among NL starters this side of Roy Halladay, threw 72 of his 95 pitches for strikes.
“He’s confident on the mound. He’s prepared. He’s focused when he’s out there,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “He’s a backyard ballplayer. He’s not the kind of guy that scouts are going to see and drool over. He’s not 6-4, 215 and cut. But he knows how to play the game, he knows how to pitch, and he knows how to compete.”
“I’m just trying to go out there and attack guys,” Karstens said. “Ray [pitching coach Ray Searage] has done a great job preparing us.”
Following a Lyle Overbay single in the second inning, Wood spotted Karstens with a quick 2-0 lead by clobbering a first-pitch fastball from Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez over the right-center field wall.
“One of the things that [Wood] has worked hard at doing is staying behind the ball, squaring it up and hitting it to the big part of the ball park,” Hurdle said. “He was pull-happy when he got here…all that hard work pays off.”
In the fourth inning, Neil Walker pulled a fastball to left field and slid head-first into second base ahead of Carlos Lee’s throw. Rodriguez then got Overbay to pop up for the second out of the inning, but Wood lined a 2-0 fastball up the middle to drive in his third run of the game.
Clint Barmes got Houston on the board with a solo shot in the fifth, knocking a 3-2, belt-high fastball into the left field stands. That’s as close as the Astros would get, though, with Pittsburgh pushing across a pair of insurance runs in the sixth.
Walker and Overbay hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Then Wood, who has nearly eight times as many strikeouts as walks in his major league career, made Wandy work.
Wood and Rodriguez engaged in a 10-pitch duel, with Wood fouling off four curveballs. Rodriguez buried a 3-2 breaker in the dirt, but Wood didn’t offer and drew a walk to load the bases with no outs.
Mike McKenry added a run with a sacrifice fly to deep right field, and Karstens dropped a soft bunt in front of the plate on a 1-1 count that scored Overbay from third base and stretched the lead to 5-1.
“We don’t have anybody who works any harder than Brandon Wood,” Hurdle said. “You watch him during the day and he takes balls at third [base], short, second and first. He works before the game in the cage. When he’s in the game he plays, and when he’s not, the routine doesn’t change.
“He’s trying to work his way back into a more meaningful role,” Hurdle continued. “Tonight we threw out five RBIs from the seven, eight and nine [hitters in the lineup], and Brandon’s were as big as anybody’s.”
Rodriguez (6-5) was tagged for eight hits and five runs in six innings pitched. He struck out six and walked two while racking up 116 pitches.
Pinch-hitter Angel Sanchez singled to start the eighth inning, prompting Hurdle to lift Karstens and bring in lefty Tony Watson to face Michael Bourn. Bourn singled to center, but Jose Veras entered and squashed any potential rally. Veras got Jeff Keppinger to ground into a fielder’s choice at second base, struck out Hunter Pence swinging and induced a ground out to third base from Lee to strand runners on the corners.
“They’re all in, and they’ve all got each other’s backs,” Hurdle said of his squad that includes just 13 players from the Opening Day roster. “I’ve had a lot of different teams, but this team is an absolute blast to manage…the coaching staff is tireless, and the kids, they listen so well. And we sprinkle in just enough experience that helps out in the clubhouse, helps out in the bullpen and helps out in the dugout.
“This is a group that’s truly committed to one thing every day, and that’s to win the ball game. And nobody in that clubhouse cares who gets the credit.”
“I think it just shows some good work from the organization,” Wood said. “Especially with the guys who came up from Triple-A, and then [there was] some good scouting giving me and Xavier Paul a chance when opportunities were slim with our other clubs. We appreciate the opportunity here.”
HANRAHAN GETS ANOTHER HONOR
Joel Hanrahan earned his first career All-Star bid on Sunday. On Tuesday, “The Hammer” was named the unanimous winner of the Major League Baseball Delivery Man of the Month Award for June. The award recognizes the most outstanding relief pitcher during each month of the season as voted on by a panel from Major League Baseball.
Hanrahan allowed just one run in 12.2 innings pitched during June, striking out 11 batters and walking three. He has converted all 25 save opportunities this season, setting a team record for most consecutive saves without a blown save. Dating back to 2010, Hanrahan has converted 27 straight saves, which is the longest current streak in the majors.
A major reason why the Pirates’ pitching staff has flourished this season is improved defensive play behind those arms. The Bucs rank sixth in the Majors in Defensive Efficiency, which is the percentage of balls put in play that are converted into outs. Last year, Pittsburgh placed dead last in that category. The last-place Astros, meanwhile, rank 29th in Defensive Efficiency in 2011.
VALDEZ TO FLORIDA
The Pirates traded RHP Cesar Valdez to the Florida Marlins on Tuesday for a player to be named later or cash. Valdez, 26, was acquired by Pittsburgh from the Arizona Diamondbacks this past December to complete the Zach Duke trade.
Converted to the bullpen this season at Triple-A Indianapolis, Valdez compiled a 36-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 3.86 ERA in 42 innings pitched.
ASTROS DL ABAD
The Astros placed LHP Fernando Abad (left shoulder tendinitis) on the 15-day disabled list and recalled RHP Fernando Rodriguez from Triple-A Oklahoma City.
CUNNINGHAM FSL PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Bradenton Marauders second baseman Jarek Cunningham was named High Class-A Florida State League Player of the Week for the week of June 26th. Cunningham went 8-for-24 at the plate during that stretch, blasting three home runs.
The 21-year-old Cunningham, an above-slot sign for the Pirates in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, is batting .266/.321/.547 overall for the Marauders this season. He leads the FSL in extra-base hits and started for the South Division in the 2011 FSL All-Star Game.
RHP Bud Norris (4-6, 3.51 ERA) faces RHP Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.63 ERA). Morton, who skipped a turn in the rotation in late June to rest his arm, took a no-decision while pitching on 10 days’ rest in an eventual 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on July 1. Morton struck out one and walked two in 5.2 innings, surrendering his first home run since April.