Mark McGwire came into Pittsburgh with 501 career homers and left four games later with the same number, plus a healthy respect for the Pirates' fast-improving starting pitching.
Kris Benson made his third consecutive strong start, holding St. Louis to a run over seven innings and striking out McGwire with the bases full in the seventh to pitch the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 5-1 victory Sunday.
McGwire was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts and two walks to finish 1-for-10 with no extra-base hits in the series. The Pirates won three times, getting well-pitched games from rookie Jimmy Anderson, Francisco Cordova and Benson.
Benson (10-8) extended the Pirates' run of excellent starts, pitching four-hit ball while allowing one run for the third start in a row. He beat the Mets 5-1 with a complete game on July 27 and held Atlanta to a run over eight innings in winning 7-1 Tuesday.
"He's good, really good," McGwire said. "He doesn't give you much to hit."
The evidence: McGwire is 0-for-7 against Benson.
Since making some mechanical adjustments in the bullpen in New York after going 1-3 with a 10.52 ERA in his previous four starts, Benson is 3-0 with a 1.08 ERA.
"Obviously, he's impressive," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "They're pitching very well. We didn't pitch badly in three of the four games, but they're pitching very well right now."
The Pirates have won seven of nine and eight of 12, a stretch in which their starting pitchers have a 1.93 ERA.
"We've said all season that iwe could get on a roll, the starting pitching could take us through a good streak," manager Gene Lamont said.
Benson struggled with his control at times, walking two and hitting a batter to load the bases in the first before striking out Craig Paquette to end the inning. Benson finished with four walks and seven strikeouts.
The right-handed Benson, the top pick in the June 1996 draft, also had to work out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh. After Paquette and Alberto Castillo singled and Joe McEwing's force play grounder scored Paquette to make it 4-1, Willie McGee reached on third baseman Ed Sprague's error and Edgar Renteria walked.
But, in danger of falling behind with one swing of McGwire's bat, Benson toughened up and struck him out on three pitches, the last a slider down and away that McGwire swung at futilely for his fifth strikeout of the series.
"It was a big situation with the home run king up there and 30,000 people screaming," Benson said. "I've been throwing him a lot of sliders, but today I threw a lot more curveballs and tried to save a slider for a good opportunity."
Almost as if he were reading the pitcher's mind, catcher Joe Oliver signaled for the slider as soon as Benson ran the count to 0-2.
"It seemed like we were on the same page the whole day," Oliver said.
Marc Wilkins finished up with two shutout innings.
The Pirates took advantage of Cardinals starter Darren Oliver's wildness to open a 4-0 lead. Coming off a 6-0 shutout of San Diego, Oliver (7-8) gave up five hits and walked four over six innings and also made an error that led to a run.
Like Benson, Oliver struggled with his control at the start, walking the bases loaded in the first before Sprague lined a two-run single into center. Sprague also doubled and scored in the fourth on Joe Oliver's force play grounder.
Joe Oliver singled, stole second for the 11th stolen base of his career and scored on Abraham Nunez's squeeze bunt in the Piraes sixth. Oliver added an RBI single in the seventh after the Cardinals intentionally walked Brant Brown to get to him the third consecutive time in two games the Pirates scored following an intentional walk.
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