ST. LOUIS -- After his last start, Trevor Williams said he knew the second half of this season would make or break him as a starting pitcher. He struggled toward the end of the first half, and second chances aren't given so freely to pitchers with fastballs that top out around 93 mph.
Suffice it to say Williams is making it. The right-hander struck out a career-high eight batters over six scoreless innings on Wednesday night, leading the Pirates to a 2-0 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. It was the Bucs' 14th shutout victory of the season, second most in the Majors behind the Cubs and their most since recording 16 in 2013. Williams has started eight of them.
"We look forward to that fifth day every time he comes out," second baseman Adam Frazier said. "Even if he's not going good, he's competing his butt off. He's fun to play behind."
Williams held the Cardinals to three hits and three walks, stranding runners as he's consistently done throughout this stingy stretch. The 26-year-old right-hander has allowed only four runs in his last 48 innings (0.75 ERA) over eight starts dating back to July 11. He has the second lowest ERA (0.83) in the National League since the All-Star break, trailing only the Cubs' Cole Hamels (0.69).
It's been a dramatic turnaround for Williams. In nine starts before this stretch began, he posted a 7.02 ERA and only completed six innings three times. Now, he owns the lowest ERA (3.30) and WHIP (1.19) in Pittsburgh's rotation.
"It's fight or flight, really. I didn't want that to define me this year," Williams said. "It was really taking that second half and making the most out of it, where I give our team the best chance to win every five days and execute my pitches and keep the guys in the ballgame."
Matt Carpenter walked to lead off the first and reached third on a double by Yadier Molina, but Williams struck out two of the next three hitters, with a popout in between, to escape the inning. Williams walked Carpenter again in the third, but immediately erased him with a double-play grounder.
"Williams did a good job hitting the corners for the most part, but I think his ball moves in a lot of different ways and it works on both edges," Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong said. "I think he just kept us off-balance, and also we missed a few opportunities in the game to capitalize."
The Pirates opened the scoring against Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas in the fifth, when Jordy Mercer -- who was activated from the disabled list on Wednesday -- doubled and scored on Starling Marte's bloop single to left field. Frazier kept the rally going, bouncing a single through the left side as Marte wheeled around to third base on a perfectly executed hit-and-run play. Gregory Polanco then swatted an RBI single to right, giving Williams a 2-0 lead.
"Any time you face a guy like that on the mound, it doesn't matter how you get them," Frazier said. "As long as you get a couple. … You know it's going to be a tough one."
After breezing through an eight-pitch fifth, Williams battled in the sixth. Matt Adams reached on a leadoff single to right, and Jose Martinez walked with one out and the middle of the order coming to the plate. Williams struck out Tyler O'Neill with a slider at the bottom of the strike zone, setting a new career high in strikeouts, then DeJong lined out to left to end the inning.
"This start's going to be a little asterisk on the year, saying, 'What did I do successfully today, and how can I build off that moving forward the rest of the year?'" Williams said.
Williams' success is not exactly a mystery. He mixes his pitches, pounding the bottom of the zone with sinkers and firing four-seam fastballs up in the zone, and keeps hitters off-balance with sliders and changeups. But knowing what Williams does is one thing. Scoring runs against him has proven to be a much greater challenge lately.
"This guy's tough to hit. He's tough to square up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's not like he's recreating himself the last eight games that he's pitched. He's executing pitches. You locate your fastball and you change speeds, and you've got a chance to win up here and do well."
Over the past two seasons, Williams ranks second among all Major League pitchers (min. 100 innings) with a 2.43 ERA in 20 starts after the All-Star break. Only Cleveland's Corey Kluber has been more effective in the second half the past two years.
Williams leads the Majors this season with eight starts of at least five scoreless innings.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The first inning might have gone differently if not for Frazier's over-the-shoulder catch in shallow center. With runners on second and third, O'Neill hit a high popup that Marte lost in the air. But Frazier kept running back and got under it in time to record the second out of the inning while holding Carpenter at third.
"It was a little terrifying, giving them second and third with nobody out," Williams said. "Frazier made a great play. That really saved it from snowballing right there. That could have easily dropped, and who knows what happens after that?"
Frazier joked that he used to pride himself on making over-the-shoulder catches while playing football in his backyard, "because it looks cool." This grab was no different.
"Saw it off the end of the bat, turned around and ran, realized Marte didn't have a good read on it with the tough sky and just kept running," Frazier said. "Luckily it fell in the glove."
HE SAID IT
"I know we're rolling good. I know that in this game, you have to really keep the foot down. I didn't necessarily let up at the middle part of the year. … I didn't necessarily keep that foot down. When you have the foot down and everything's rolling and everything's going good, you want to keep pitching. When things are going rough, the five days feel like forever in between starts. When things are going good, it feels like you're pitching back-to-back days. It's a good feeling. I hope to continue to keep the foot down the rest of the year." -- Williams, on his performance the last eight starts
Right-hander Joe Musgrove (5-7, 3.56 ERA) will start for the Pirates on Thursday as they wrap up a three-game series against the Cardinals at 7:15 p.m. ET at Busch Stadium. After six straight starts of at least six innings, Musgrove allowed two first-inning homers in Milwaukee last Friday and lasted only four innings. Right-hander John Gant (5-5, 3.56) will start for St. Louis.