PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Pirates are convinced it was a preview of better things to come in what has been another terrible season. The St. Louis Cardinals prefer to believe it was a one-weekend anomaly that won't soon be repeated.
Paul Maholm pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings, Jason Bay and Joe Randa hit consecutive homers and the last-place Pirates finished off a three-game sweep of division leader St. Louis, beating the Cardinals 7-0 Sunday.
The Cardinals, outscored 17-3 in the series, lead Cincinnati by 1 1/2 games in the NL Central following the Reds' 7-5, 11-inning victory Sunday in Philadelphia. The Reds and Cardinals begin a three-game series Tuesday at St. Louis.
"Every series we play right now is big," Albert Pujols said.
Asked what the Cardinals could take out of the weekend, Pujols said, "Nothing. What positives can you take out of a sweep? Nothing."
Maholm (5-10) became the latest left-hander to give the Cardinals problems, allowing eight hits but getting key outs when needed in the third consecutive effective start by a young Pirates starter in the series. Zach Duke pitched a complete game in winning 7-1 Friday and Ian Snell lasted seven innings in a 3-2 decision Saturday night.
The Cardinals have lost eight of their last nine to left-handed starters, including Duke and Maholm, and 10 of 12 over the last month.
"This was a huge confidence builder for us," Maholm said of the Pirates, who have been as many as 30 games below .500 in what is all but certain to be a 14th consecutive losing season. "This shows us how we can play. Now that we've set the tone, we're going to play like that for a long time now."
Most of all, the Pirates showed what a productive Chris Duffy means to them. The center fielder hit .341 in 39 games as a rookie last season, but has spent much of this season in the minors or sitting out because he was unhappy at being demoted.
After going 3-for-32 following his Aug. 1 recall, he was 7-for-11 in the series with four runs scored and two stolen bases. And NL batting leader Freddy Sanchez was 6-for-13 with three doubles.
"Every aspect of our game over the weekend was strong," Duffy said. "I want to go out and finish strong and I think every guy in here feels that way."
The Cardinals have lost five of six, 13 of 17 and are two games under .500 since the All-Star break - and, now, they can't even count on beating a Pirates team that had lost 19 of their previous 25 to them.
"I know they were struggling coming in, but they just the job against us," manager Tony La Russa said.
Jason Marquis (12-11) didn't pitch badly in his fourth consecutive loss, yielding three hits over six innings. All were for extra bases _ Bay's 25th homer and Randa's third with no outs in the second, and Sanchez's double in the sixth.
Bay's homer was his first since July 26. He hadn't homered in PNC Park since June 18, or nearly a month before he started the All-Star game there.
St. Louis had 12 baserunners and plenty of scoring opportunities against Maholm but couldn't get a key hit with runners on base. Backup catcher Gary Bennett grounded out to leave the bases loaded in the fourth, flied out to end the sixth with two runners on and struck out with two on in the eighth.
"We couldn't get hit with runners on the whole series, but it's part of the game," Pujols said.
Salomon Torres also got a key out after replacing Maholm in the seventh, walking Pujols to put two runners on before getting Scott Rolen to pop up and end the threat. Rolen doubled after sitting out three games with back spasms and, according to La Russa, had no problems Sunday.
The Pirates led 2-0 until scoring four times in the seventh against Adam Wainwright on Duffy's two-run single and Sanchez's two-run double.
"It was our finest weekend of the season," manager Jim Tracy said. "And with four starting pitchers who are 24 or younger, it's getting more and more interesting by the day."
Notes: Pittsburgh had lost five in a row coming into the series. … Pirates 2B Jose Castillo returned after not starting the first two games. He had started 104 of the first 113 games. … The Pirates last swept three games from the Cardinals from June 28-30, 2004, in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have two other sweeps this season, four games against the Brewers and three against the Giants, both in Pittsburgh. .. The Cardinals have 16 losses of six runs or more. … Pittsburgh has a better record since the All-Star break (15-13) than the Cardinals (14-16). … The Pirates are 31-28 at home but 14-45 on the road.