PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates waited until they were 50 games below .500 before playing their best baseball of a miserable season.
Charlie Morton pitched effectively over six innings to win for the first time in 4 1/2 months, Pedro Alvarez homered and drove in four runs and the Pirates extended the St. Louis Cardinals' late-season collapse by winning 11-6 on Wednesday night.
John Bowker homered among three hits as the Pirates won their fifth straight, their longest streak since an identical run in August 2009.
"We want to finish the season strong and, next year, we've got to start the season like that," Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeno said. "When we play like that, you see your pitchers getting better."
It can't get much worse for St. Louis, which was assured of its eighth consecutive series loss against a losing-record opponent. The Cardinals have dropped 25 of 37 since they led the NL Central on Aug. 13, including the first two of this three-game series.
Any combination of losses by St. Louis or wins by first-place Cincinnati totaling three will put St. Louis out of a division race it led much of the season. The Reds lost 13-1 in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.
Morton (2-11), on the brink of having one of the worst seasons by any starter in Pirates' history, won his second in 15 starts and his first since beating the Cubs 4-2 on May 5.
The right-hander began September with a 10.03 ERA that was the second-worst in modern major league history of any starter with at least 10 decisions, but he's lowered that to 8.11 by allowing no more than three earned runs in any of his last four starts.
"I never once thought about it," Morton said of possibly ending his season with a lone victory. "I think if I go out and pitch well, I'll get a win. That's the attitude I have to have."
Until now, the Pirates hadn't seen results from a pitcher with a strong assortment of pitches yet one who never seemed to put it together. Until this month, he had allowed five earned runs or more in seven of 11 starts.
"He's got great stuff, great stuff," Cedeno said. "I think he's the best pitcher we've got with that stuff. Now we've got to keep it going."
Morton worked effectively off his fastball with a sharp-dropping breaking ball. He struck out five and walked one, giving up two hits and four runs.
St. Louis didn't put up much of a fight, falling behind 10-1 while losing its fourth in its last five games in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are within two losses of their first 100-loss season since 2001 yet could finish with a winning record at home by taking three of their final four in PNC Park.
Only one major league team, Tampa Bay in 2006, had a winning record at home while losing 100 games, according to STATS LLC. The Rays were 61-101, 41-40 at home and 20-61 on the road. The Pirates, 48-98 before starting their winning streak, are 38-39 at home and 15-59 on the road, where they play their final seven.
Jose Tabata's second RBI triple in as many games made it 2-0 in the first. Alvarez had a two-run double as the Pirates scored three times in the third against Kyle Lohse (4-8) to go ahead 6-1, and he added a two-run homer in the fifth against reliever P.J. Walters.
"Six runs in three innings I think explains it," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I don't know how to define it better than that."
Lohse began the game with a 5-0 record and 2.26 ERA against Pittsburgh only to surrender six runs and seven hits in three innings.
"Nothing against those guys, but it's a team I've had good success against," Lohse said. "To go out there and perform like that is really frustrating."
Matt Holliday doubled in the sixth, extending the Cardinals' longest hitting streak this season to 14 games (22 of 51, .431). ... Alvarez's rookie season high is five RBIs, against Milwaukee on July 20. ... Alvarez's homer was his 12th and his second in 142 at-bats since his game-winning, three-run homer in the 10th inning beat Colorado on Aug. 7. ... Cardinals rookie Daniel Descalso doubled for his first career hit.