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MIL@PIT: Karstens is untouchable in fifth victory

PITTSBURGH -- From the first day of Spring Training, the Pirates' mantra, pushed by their manager, has been "Finish!"

No offense, but Jeff Karstens knew better. The Bucs needed a re-write. There was a greater urgency to "Start!"

All that attention to finishing out this season stronger than the one before wouldn't mean much if Pittsburgh starting pitchers didn't, well, start with some zeroes and halt the taxing streak of having let opponents score first in 21 of the last 25 games.

Karstens turned his own mantra into seven-plus innings of seven-hit shutout pitching toward the Bucs' 4-0 win over Milwaukee, which snapped a four-game losing streak begun the day following his last start.

Karstens had to make a premature exit with discomfort in the area of his right groin muscle, but shortly after his abrupt eighth-inning departure, he confidently predicted the tweak was not serious enough to force him to miss a pitching turn.

"Jeff gave us exactly the start we needed," Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle said. "He was on and off the gas all night."

Having already thrown 84 pitches, Karstens was close to calling it a night, anyway. Hurdle noted he had reliever Jason Grilli primed to enter to face Rickie Weeks, the batter following Norichika Aoki, the man Karstens was facing when he cringed after delivering a changeup.

"I wasn't happy about having to come out when I did, but at the end off the day, I'm just happy that we won," Karstens said. "I was at the point of the game where I was about out of the game, anyway. So just thank God it didn't happen earlier, where our bullpen would've gotten taxed."

He struck out four, without issuing a walk, and also contributed a clutch single to the four-run fourth that endured as the Bucs' lone production.

Karstens went seven-plus innings for the seventh time in his last 10 starts. In other words, he has stepped up to pick up any slack resulting from James McDonald's second-half struggles.

What a strange home stretch for the Pirates: They have bookended a pair of shutouts (the earlier one being the Erik Bedard-started 4-0 whitewash of Arizona on Aug. 6) around 11 straight games in which their pitching allowed five-or-more runs. In the 50 games prior to this span, that is something the Pittsburgh staff had done a total of only seven times.

The Pirates offense isn't as robust as it was in June and July, but it still is every bit as opportunistic. It converted a muff by Milwaukee center fielder Carlos Gomez -- he let Neil Walker's leadoff short fly bounce off the top of his glove -- into the four unearned runs in the fourth.

"It's frustrating and embarrassing," said Gomez, who had raced in for Walker's flare but wound up boxing the ball. "I put all my speed on it and I saw the ball kind of stop. I was a little bit out of balance and that ball hit the side of my glove. "It's a moment that made the game different. If I catch that ball, either we're still playing or we win the game."

"We were able to string together a  pretty good inning. We took advantage of some situations, and swung the bats," Hurdle said. "The pitcher threw in an RBI single, which was big at the time, and we added on after that, which was good to see."

There was something ironic about a single by Karstens being a centerpiece of the Bucs' breakout rally: The night before, right-hander Mike Fiers' bunt single had set up the Brewers' tie-breaking four-run burst in the seventh inning of their 6-5 win.

Karstens' hit was more serious, a hard roller up the middle that scored Michael McKenry, whose RBI double had cashed in Walker to make it 1-0. An RBI double by Jose Tabata and Snider's run-scoring single rounded out the four-run siege.

"In those situations, as pitchers we can focus a little more, to help us out," Karstens said. "It kept the rally going, got some guys fired up. Got me fired up, I know that."

That inning hurt Tabata; he came out of the game afterwards with discomfort in his left-groin area, apparently incurred on his run home from second on Snider's hit.

Brewers righty Shaun Marcum's pain was only symbolic, but no less nagging. In his first start since June 14 and recovering from a tight elbow, he departed after that fifth, having allowed those four unearned runs along with five hits, while walking one and striking out five.

Karstens avoided the first-inning struggles that have been plaguing Pirates starters only by the grace of Snider's leaping ability. The right-fielder stalked Ryan Braun's two-out drive to the 375-foot marker in right-center and caught it between the top of the wall and the yellow home-run marker.

It wasn't clear who got a bigger rise out of the theft: Walker, who raised both arms in jubilation and waited for Snider so they could continue to the dugout together, or Karstens, who tipped his cap in salute? Let's call it a tie.

"Are you kidding? That was one of our best catches of the season," Walker said. "I always get excited when we make a great play on defense."

"At first, I didn't think it was hit that well, but Braun is a pretty strong guy," Karstens said. "So I did tip my cap to him. But guys were making great plays behind me all night."

At the end of the night, all those guys were tipping their caps at Karstens.

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