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Pirates throw down the hammer

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Paul Maholm pitched seven shutout innings, allowing only three hits, and Tim Wood and Joel "The Hammer" Hanrahan continued his dominance with a 1-2-3 ninth as the Pirates topped the Mets 3-1 Monday night.

The Pirates earned a series split with the Mets and clinched a winning 10-game home stand with a 3-1 victory Monday night at PNC Park. Paul Maholm blanked New York for seven innings and the Bucs' bats scraped together enough offense as Neil Walker collected two RBI and Brandon Wood went deep. New York starter Mike Pelfrey shut down the Pirates (32-33) most of the night, but he took the tough luck loss with the Mets (32-34) unable to break through against Maholm.

Maholm (3-7) gave up just three hits in seven innings pitched, striking out four and issuing two walks while recording 10 ground ball outs.

"Just another fine outing for Paul," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Again he was very effective to the glove side against a lot of the right-handed hitters and he was able to spin the ball and throw some nice changeups. The two-seamer came into play when he wanted it to, but I still think what's opening things up for him is his ability to work the ball to the glove side."

The Pirates jumped on Pelfrey (3-5) with three straight singles to start the game. Jose Tabata muscled an inside fastball to right field and Xavier Paul, starting in center field with Andrew McCutchen getting the night off, followed with a shot to center. Tabata was seemingly thrown out trying to advance to third base on Paul's hit, but the umpires called interference on Mets shortstop Jose Reyes for blocking Tabata's path past the second base bag.

Mets manager Terry Collins came out of the dugout to argue with second base umpire Jerry Layne, to no avail.

Walker then got the Bucs on the board with a line drive to center field that scored Tabata. Pelfrey avoided a big inning, however, spinning and firing to Reyes to get Paul napping off second base and then retiring Garrett Jones and Lyle Overbay.

Pelfrey dominated after Walker's RBI single, sitting down 20 of the next 21 batters through the seventh inning. But the one Pirate he didn't retire, Brandon Wood, roped an inside fastball into the left field bleachers to lead off the bottom of the fifth and stretch Pittsburgh's lead to two runs.

While Wood turned on a Pelfrey fastball thrown inside, he lauded the right-hander's stuff on Monday.

"He just threw me a lot of heaters and two-seamers," Wood said. "He threw a lot of guys some heaters and then he mixed it up later in the game."

Pelfrey struck out six and walked none in seven innings pitched, giving up four hits and two earned runs.

Maholm retired the side in the first, third, fourth and seventh innings, and the Mets couldn't capitalize on opportunities with runners in scoring position in the two frames that they managed to reach base against the lefty.

In the second inning, Jason Bay walked with one out. Ronny Paulino then struck out swinging, but Murphy advanced Bay to third base with a single to center field. Maholm escaped the first-and-third jam by getting Ruben Tejada to hit a changeup to Paul in center field.

Murphy and Tejada hit back-to-back singles with one out in the top of the fifth. Pelfrey whiffed on a sacrifice bunt attempt, though, and catcher Mike McKenry gunned to second base to catch Murphy in no-man's land between second and third. Murphy was eventually tagged out on the 2-6-5-4-6 rundown. Pelfrey grounded out to second base later in the at-bat.

"The last game [against New York on June 2, when Maholm and the Pirates gave up a seven run lead] was a struggle with the overall consistency of my mechanics," Maholm said. "But tonight was good. I got in a groove, I got a lot of ground balls and I go through the couple of times that they put runners on and the defense picked me up again."

Hurdle liked the way that McKenry caught Maholm less than 24 hours after he was acquired from the Boston Red Sox.

"I thought he was able to get on the same page as Paul with the game plan. There wasn't a whole lot of shaking that went on on the mound. [McKenry] has a really good target back there. He receives the ball well and he's the kind of catcher that can steal some strikes. He blocked the ball efficiently tonight as well and he takes a whack at it up at the plate."

"He was great," Maholm said of McKenry. "You see he's catching you and you've never met the guy. You go over, introduce yourself, go over the game plan and go out there and execute it. And he was spot-on."

Jose Veras channeled his June 2 appearance against New York by nearly having another meltdown in the eighth. He walked Ruben Tejada to lead off the inning, fell behind pinch-hitter Lucas Duda 2-0 and then allowed a single to right field to put runners on first and third base with no outs.

Hurdle yanked Veras in favor of Tim Wood. Wood, recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis on June 10, fired a first-pitch 95 MPH fastball off the outside corner of the plate that Reyes lined the other way. Tabata made a sliding grab and tossed the ball into the infield.

Tejada tagged up and scored, but Brandon Wood cut off Tabata's throw and doubled up Duda at first base for the 7-5-3 double play. The Pirates then appealed at third base, thinking that Tejada left the bag before Tabata made the grab, but the run stood.

Justin Turner then flied out to McCutchen, who came in to play center field in as part of a double-switch, on a high-80s slider from Wood to preserve a 2-1 Pirates lead.

"Absolutely tough," Hurdle said of the decision to lift Maholm after seven innings and 95 pitches. "Those are the toughest ones that you have to make. You send him out and they score a run, you left him out too long. If you take him out and the next guy gives up runs, you made a mistake. That's just the life of what you do when you manage."

Hurdle was hoping to shock Mets hitters by changing from a finesse lefty to a high-octane right-hander.

"It really changes the whole real estate of the plate for the guys who have been facing Paul for two or three at-bats, and then you bring in a guy who can go mid-90's.

"I sure didn't draw up the double play," Hurdle said. "That was good defensive work by Jose [Tabata]. The last thing [Veras] wanted to do was walk the lead-off hitter. Fortunately, we've got some different options out there [in the bullpen] to pick people up when they don't get it done.

"[Maholm] really wanted to stay in tonight," Hurdle continued. "That's when it gets hard because, you know, what's your argument? We didn't even talk about it; we'll have that conversation another time. But you've got to like the way he has pitched for us this year."

The Mets brought Manny Acosta on the work the bottom of the eighth. After retiring McKenry to start the inning, he swiftly backed himself into a bases loaded situation by allowing three straight singles to Cedeno, McCutchen and Tabata.

Collins called on Tim Byrdak in the bullpen, and the lefty got Paul (who moved to right field when McCutchen entered the game) to strike out swinging. Byrdak then walked home a run, though, missing with a 3-and-2 slider off the outside corner to Walker. Former Pirate D.J. Carrasco relieved Byrdak and got pinch-hitter Matt Diaz to fly out to right.

Joel Hanrahan crushed any hopes of a Mets comeback in the ninth, getting Beltran to ground out, striking out Angel Pagan swinging and then inducing a fly out by Bay to earn the Pirates a series split.

"I like the way we're playing baseball right now. We're pitching and we're playing defense," Hurdle said. "We'd like to score more runs, but we're scratching out at-bats. Yesterday was a very disappointing day for our offense. The ability to counterpunch and make adjustments, I thought we had better at-bats across the board tonight."

Andrew McCutchen got a chance to rest his wheels on Monday with Xavier Paul starting in center field. Paul batted second, Neil Walker moved up to third in the order and Garrett Jones hit cleanup.

McCutchen still extended his career-best hitting streak to 12 games, however, entering the game as part of a double-switch in the top of the eighth inning and singling in the bottom half.

With a spotless ninth inning on Monday, Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan is now 17-for-17 in save chances this season. The imposing righty has a 28-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30.2 innings pitched.

"Joel just continues to pound the zone," Hurdle said. "The fastball command tonight was excellent. He went up top when he wanted to go up top and was just very aggressive against hitters."

Is Hanrahan the game's best closer right now?

"My view is limited," Hurdle said, "but I'll take our guy."

Tim Wood wiggled out of a tense eighth inning situation on Monday, with a little help from Jose Tabata. Hurdle is impressed with the power righty's demeanor.

"I think he's very motivated -- he might be the most motivated he has ever been," Hurdle said. "He has a history from Florida with one of our pitching coaches, Scott Mitchell, who felt it was a good opportunity [to get Wood]. He did everything that was asked of him in Triple-A. What you try to do is present them with an opportunity, because that's what they have been dreaming about, that's what they've been looking for, and it's up to them to move upon it. He does seem to have a slower heartbeat in higher leverage situations, which is something that you need."

It's no secret that the Pirates lack offensive punch -- the club ranks 14th in the N.L. in runs scored. But, as evidenced by Brandon Wood's diving grab to start a double play in the first inning, Garrett Jones' sliding grab in the third, McKenry's heads-up throw to second base to nail a runner in the fifth and Tabata's nifty catch in the eighth, the Pirates are much improved on defense.

Pittsburgh had the lowest Defensive Efficiency, or percentage of balls put in play that are converted into outs, in the majors in 2010. This year, the Bucs place 14th.

"We've got to play good defense," Hurdle said. "It's one of those things that our guys take pride in. We're not going to beat the ball all over the yard very often."

Following Sunday's game, the Pirates acquired catcher Mike McKenry from the Boston Red Sox for cash or a player to be named later. To make room on the 40-man roster, Pittsburgh designated catcher Wyatt Toregas for assignment.

McKenry, 26, was drafted out Middle Tennessee State University by the Colorado Rockies in the seventh round of the 2006 MLB Draft. Colorado traded the right-handed hitter to the Red Sox in late March for RHP Daniel Turpen.

With Ryan Doumit (ankle) on the 15-day DL and likely out until late July, Chris Snyder (60-day DL, back surgery) possibly done for the season and Jason Jaramillo (elbow) ailing at Triple-A Indianapolis, McKenry gives the Pirates a more potent offensive player than Toregas to pair with Dusty Brown behind the plate.

McKenry has just nine career plate appearances in the major leagues, but he has a .268 batting average, a .337 on-base percentage and a .425 slugging percentage in 492 career plate appearances at the Triple-A level.

John Sickels, a minor league expert and author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2011, said in his book that McKenry "is not going to hit for a high batting average in the majors, but he has power and is a dangerous mistake hitter, especially against lefties...On defense, he avoids mistakes and blocks pitches extremely well, and has a good reputation as a field general."

Oliver, a major league projection system used by The Hardball Times that incorporates minor league statistics, forecasts that McKenry will bat .230/.294/.374 in the big leagues. For comparison, Brown is projected to hit .229/.300/.366 and Toregas has a .227/.287/.367 forecast. Collectively, major league catchers have a .243/.315/.382 line in 2011.

McKenry made his Pirates debut Monday night, batting out of the seven spot in the lineup.

"I felt great," McKenry said. "It's a good group of guys and I just feel fortunate to be here and play with these guys. They've made me feel at home. You can feel the energy. It's right in the middle of the season, we want to win and all these guys came out tonight and gave it their absolute all. It was a blast."

With McKenry getting the start on Monday, the Pirates have now used six different catchers during the 2011 season.

Ryan Doumit (on the 15-day DL with an ankle injury), Chris Snyder (60-day DL, back surgery), Jason Jaramillo (seven-day DL at Triple-A Indianapolis, sore elbow), Dusty Brown, Wyatt Toregas (designated for assignment) and McKenry have all appeared behind the plate for the Pirates.

The last time the Bucs used six catchers in a season was 1988 (Mike LaValliere, Junior Ortiz, Tom Prince, Ruben Rodriguez, Mike Diaz, Dave Hostetler).

The Bucs begin a six-game road trip on Tuesday night with RHP Jeff Karstens (3-4, 2.94 ERA) taking on Houston RHP Bud Norris (4-4, 3.67 ERA) at Minute Maid Park.

Karstens and Norris are polar opposites on the mound. Karstens sits in the high 80s with his fastball and also throws sliders, curveballs and changeups more than 10 percent of the time each. He relies on superb control (1.27 walks per nine innings as a starting pitcher) to compensate for a low strikeout rate (5.72 K/9).

Norris averages about 93 MPH with his heater and has thrown his upper-80s slider 36 percent of the time this season. Hitters have whiffed at that wicked pitch 21 percent of the time that Norris has thrown it (the major league average is 13-14 percent). The 26-year-old has the tenth-highest strikeout rate (9 K/9) among qualified starting pitchers, making up for his occasional bouts of wildness (3.56 BB/9).

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