PITTSBURGH — Jake Westbrook's struggles against the Pittsburgh Pirates have veered from statistical curiosity to something more troubling for the veteran right-hander and the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Pirates roughed up Westbrook again in a 9-2 loss on Monday night to pull within a half-game of the Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central. Westbrook (7-5) fell to 1-8 against Pittsburgh in his otherwise solid career after the Pirates jumped on him for four runs in the first.
"Can't explain it," Westbrook said.
Neither can manager Mike Matheny, though Matheny is just as concerned about the way baseball's best offensive team has disappeared during a season-high four-game losing streak. The Cardinals have scored just five runs over the last 36 innings.
"You're going to have times like this in a season," Matheny said. "You've just got to keep your head down and keep going and realize that over the long haul guys have done a real nice job producing offensively. That will be back."
Not having to face Francisco Liriano will help. Liriano (11-4) continued his resurgence by limiting the Cardinals to four hits over seven innings, walking two and striking out eight to win his fifth consecutive start.
"I've given a lot of credit to pitching lately, and frankly I'm just tired of doing that," Matheny said. "Liriano threw the ball well again today and we knew he would."
Clint Barmes doubled twice and drove in two runs for Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen added two hits and an RBI as the Pirates kicked off the biggest series in the 12-year history of PNC Park with an easy win.
"I just like it when we play like that," Hurdle said.
Despite the lofty stakes for a franchise seeking its first playoff appearance since 1992, Hurdle stressed the need to not place too much focus on a late-July series. Maybe, but with the Pirates facing a chance to make inroads on the team with the best record in baseball, the game had an electricity typically reserved for early fall in cities far away from the one that hasn't fielded a winner in more than two decades.
Lower-lever tickets were fetching $100 or more hours before the first pitch, and Liriano did not disappoint the largest Monday-night crowd (32,084) since the park opened in 2001.
The left-hander, whose path to stardom veered off track after having Tommy John surgery in 2007, retired the first 10 batters he faced and kept the best-hitting team in the National League on its heels while dropping his ERA to 2.16.
"Well he didn't throw a lot of balls and was pounding the zone pretty good," Matheny said. "Once you get into a negative count, you have to guard, and he did a nice job of expanding when he had to."
The Pirates took some of the pressure off Liriano early by teeing off on Westbrook yet again.
As ugly as his record against the Pirates is, it could have been even worse. Westbrook was touched for four runs in the first inning in his last start at PNC Park on April 16 only to have the game washed out by rain.
The weather couldn't save him this time. Neither could Westbrook's usually solid control.
Jose Tabata led off the bottom of the first with a walk and Westbrook drilled Neil Walker moments later. McCutchen followed with an RBI-single up the middle and Alvarez took the very next pitch and sent it into the first row of bleachers.
"It was a battle from pitch 1 -- and it showed early on," Westbrook said. "It's not really how you draw it up with a walk and a hit batsmen and a single and a homer. Put us in a bad spot against a good team and against a guy who's throwing the ball really well. Not how you want to start off."
Westbrook survived a bases-loaded jam in the second to stay close, but by then Liriano had all the support he would need. His only real mistake came in the sixth, when pinch-hitter Tony Cruz led off with a triple and scored on Matt Carpenter's single up the middle. A strikeout and a double play followed, and the Pirates broke it open in the seventh against relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas.
Garrett Jones started it with Pittsburgh's first sacrifice fly to the outfield since May 27 and Barmes clubbed a two-run double as the Pirates batted around.
NOTES: Pirates LF Starling Marte did not start after getting a planned day off in favor of Alex Presley, recalled from Triple-A on Monday after C Mike McKenry went onto the disabled list with a sprained knee. Marte entered in the seventh as a pinch hitter and singled. He is hitting just .131 (5 for 38) since July 20 ... The series continues with a doubleheader Tuesday. A.J. Burnett (4-7, 2.96 ERA) faces Lance Lynn (12-5, 3.98 ERA) in the opener with the Cardinals' Tyler Lyons (2-3, 5.51) starting the second game. The Pirates will not name a starter for the second game until Tuesday morning. ... Lynn was originally supposed to start the second game, but Matheny moved him into the matchup against Burnett because he wanted a more experienced pitcher to take on Pittsburgh's ace.