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CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees. Johan Santana of the New York Mets. Cole Hamels of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies.

And Paul Maholm of the Pirates ?

"Oh, sure, absolutely," closer Matt Capps said last night, after Maholm blanked the Atlanta Braves on four hits in seven innings of a 3-0 victory that was a one-run game until a Nate McLouth homer in the bottom of the eighth at PNC Park. "Look at everything he's done. Look at every game he pitches. This team feels like he can win [each start]. It's hard not to put him in that company."

"Ever since May of last year, he's been ... unhittable, I guess the word is," McLouth added. "You can't believe how easy it is to play defense for a guy like that."

Defensive plays came from such folks as third baseman Andy LaRoche, making throws from his knees in a game in which he also knocked in his first RBI of the season.

Timely pitching came from Maholm (2-0, 0.87 ERA) along with John Grabow and Capps (third save).

Those facets allowed the Pirates to lower their team ERA to 2.90 and even their record to 5-5 on a night when they conjured six hits and nary a walk until the seventh inning, the last for Atlanta starter Jair Jurrjens (2-1).

"Jurrjens was throwing a great game, and I had to match him out for out," said Maholm, three years older and two major-league seasons more experienced than his Braves counterpart.

Maholm first had to escape a jam of his own making in the top of the second.

Maholm plunked Atlanta's Brian McCann to start the inning, then yielded singles up the middle to Jeff Francouer and Martin Prado, who twice squared to bunt before hitting away.

Suddenly, the bases were loaded with Braves with no outs.

Casey Kotchman followed two strikes with three foul balls, including one just inches to the left of the left-field line.

'"Yeah, that's luck," Maholm said.

Then Kotchman popped up inches in front of home plate for an infield-fly rule out (a ball that catcher Ryan Doumit actually dropped). Jordan Schafer then tapped a soft comebacker to Maholm, who began a home-to-first double play that was easy as 1-2-3.

"Having the weird infield-fly rule and the double play ..." Maholm said, on top of Kotchman's near-miss foul ball, "that's when you know it's going [right] for you."

In the bottom of the second, the Pirates provided Maholm with a 1-0 lead.

The inning after Freddy Sanchez tripled with one out and got stranded, Brandon Moss tripled with one out and scored on LaRoche's grounder deep up the middle.

Maholm preserved it for seven innings, and the bullpen in the eighth and ninth made it stick.

These Pirates do a lot of that, with a 50-2 record last season and a 4-0 start this season when leading after seven.

"You better go knock on some wood," joked Capps.

But it is a mind-set from the bullpen, he added: Don't blow the lead.

Grabow didn't when the margin was a scant one run, and the Pirates were 2-21 a year ago when scoring that miniscule number.

"It's got to be that way. Our starter, Paul, pitches like that?"

Maholm, one of the team's nucleus signed to long-term deals this offseason, pitched that way most of last season (9-9 with a 3.71 ERA -- numbers that could've been much better had his mates scored more for him).

He crafted a 3.11 ERA after May 31, the fourth-lowest among National League left-handers behind the aforementioned Sabathia, Santana and Hamels. He ranked behind Santana and Hamels in innings thrown by a left-hander, with 2061/3.

"Definitely," McLouth said of fans starting to include Maholm in elite lefty company. "Watch him. You watch the guy from TV, the press box, in the dugout -- he's amazing. He works in and out. Lefties and righties. Hardly any balls are hit hard on him. He kind of rocks hitters."

Against former Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez in the bottom of the eighth, Freddy Sanchez singled with one out, and McLouth followed with homer deep to right field, his third of the season.

"It was nice to get those two extra runs there," McLouth said.

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 18, 2009

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