With time running out and the losses accumulating, the Pittsburgh Pirates desperately need to take advantage of this favorable portion of their schedule.
In a six-game homestand against baseball's two worst teams, the scuffling Pirates hope to continue their dominance over the Houston Astros in Monday's series opener.
After having a 3 1/2-game cushion to secure a playoff berth Aug. 8, Pittsburgh (70-63) is now 1 1/2 back of the NL's second wild-card spot. The Pirates have lost nine of 12, and are 7-16 since Aug. 9. The Astros, at 5-17, are the only NL team with a worse record in that span."Every game right now is key," Gaby Sanchez said after Sunday's 12-8 loss to Milwaukee. "We've got to go out there and keep playing baseball, keep trying to have fun out there and continue pushing forward. All we can do is go out there and battle and give everything we've got."
Although things seem bleak for Pittsburgh after being swept in three games by the Brewers, there is plenty of reason for optimism with three against Houston (41-93) followed by three with the Chicago Cubs - teams that are a combined 83 games under .500.
Pittsburgh has also fared well against each club. It is 9-2 against the Astros, and has won the last six meetings at PNC Park. Andrew McCutchen is batting .565 with two homers, five RBIs and seven runs during the home winning streak.
McCutchen seems to be coming out of his slump, batting .364 during a five-game hitting streak after batting .158 in his previous eight, but his power is still missing. He's hit two homers in his last 42 games.
Garrett Jones , meanwhile, homered twice in the weekend series in Milwaukee to raise his season total to 23. He is batting .424 with four home runs, 11 RBIs and 11 runs in eight games against Houston since the start of July.
McCutchen and Jones will get their first look at Edgar Gonzalez , who is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Gonzalez had a 0.69 ERA in two starts for the RedHawks after pitching in the Mexican League. The right-hander has appeared in just one game since the conclusion of the 2009 season, throwing two innings of relief for Colorado last August.
The Pirates are going with a call-up of their own, with Jeff Locke (0-0, 0.00 ERA) making the jump from Triple-A Indianapolis to take the spot in the rotation of Erik Bedard , who was released on Tuesday.
Locke, one of Pittsburgh's top pitching prospects, went 10-5 with a 2.48 ERA and 131 strikeouts over 141 2-3 innings in 24 starts for the Indians. He really impressed in his final six minor league games, posting a 0.75 ERA with 41 strikeouts over 36 innings.
"He's made a lot of progress," Clint Hurdle told the Pirates' official website. "The next step is to check it out here."
This will be Locke's second stint with the Pirates this year after throwing 4 1-3 scoreless innings in two relief outings in mid-August. He made his major league debut last September, going 0-3 with a 6.48 ERA in four starts.
"The confidence is through the roof," he said. "It won't be easier, but it'll be a lot more comfortable (than last September)."
Facing Houston should help.
With Sunday's 5-3 loss to Cincinnati, the Astros fell for the seventh time in eight games and dropped to 8-40 since the All-Star break. They're offense has been brutal, plating four or fewer runs in 15 of 16 games.
"We're trying to add runs," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "I think we're going to have to be creative and hit and run, suicide squeeze, safety squeeze."
|August 30, 2012||Marwin Gonzalez||Day-to-Day||Torn ligament, left ankle|
|August 28, 2012||Bud Norris||Day-to-Day||Left game - blister|
|August 22, 2012||Justin Maxwell||Day-to-Day||Bruised right index finger|
|August 07, 2012||Jordan Schafer||15-Day DL||Left shoulder separation|
|August 07, 2012||Jordan Schafer||15-Day DL||Left shoulder separation|
|August 02, 2012||Francisco Cordero||15-Day DL||Inflamed right big toe|
|August 31, 2012||Jeff Karstens||Day-to-Day||Hip flexor|
|August 27, 2012||Neil Walker||Day-to-Day||Lower back stiffness|
|August 25, 2012||Chad Qualls||15-Day DL||Left toe sprain|
|August 25, 2012||Jose Tabata||Day-to-Day||Left game - left groin discomfort|
|August 19, 2012||Starling Marte||15-Day DL||Strained right oblique|
|August 15, 2012||Neil Walker||Day-to-Day||Dislocated finger|
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Houston Astros hardly played like a team finishing out the string.
Brett Wallace smashed a three-run homer among his three hits and Edgar Gonzalez picked up his first big league win in more than four years as the Astros topped the struggling Pittsburgh Pirates 5-1 on Monday.
"I don't know if we want to play spoiler, but we want to give these guys some experience and a feel for what's it like to compete against top-notch teams," said interim manager Tony DeFrancesco.
Even if they're doing it with a patchwork roster that now includes Gonzalez, a 29-year-old journeyman who was pitching in the Mexican League earlier this summer before signing a minor league deal with Houston on Aug. 23.
Less than two weeks later the right-hander made his first major league start since 2009 and ended up with his first win as a starter since April, 24, 2008 when he was pitching in Arizona.
"It's been a while," Gonzalez said. "The last start was in `09. I felt great, I was just so focused and threw the ball down and thank God that things worked good for us."
Gonzalez gave up a run on five hits in 5 1-3 innings, walking one and striking out five as the Astros won for just the third time since DeFrancesco took over two weeks ago.
"Since I've been here, the fight's been there every game," DeFrancesco said. "I have no problem with the way guys are competing. ... They're starting to have fun, getting on each other and in the dugout. There's a lot of life."
Something the reeling Pirates could use. In the midst of a playoff race for the first time in 20 years, Pittsburgh has dropped four straight and 10 of its last 13 and trails St. Louis by 2 1/2 games for the NL's second wild card spot.
"We've got to keep going," said Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones , who had three of Pittsburgh's five hits. "We've got to keep our heads high, keep our confidence high and get `em tomorrow."
The release of veteran left-hander Erik Bedard and an injury to Jeff Karstens has forced the Pirates to juggle their starting rotation. They turned to Jeff Locke , hoping the 24-year-old lefthander could give the staff a boost.
It didn't quite happen. Locke (0-1) surrendered five runs in five innings to remain winless in five big league starts. Though he pitched efficiently - striking out six and walking just one - the Astros took advantage of his mistakes.
None of them bigger than a hanging breaking ball to Wallace with two on in the sixth.
Jose Altuve singled with one out and Tyler Greene followed with a chopper to Pittsburgh shortstop Clint Barmes , who double-clutched on his throw to first to give Greene just enough time to beat it out for a hit. Wallace sent Locke's next offering into the first row of seats in right-center for his seventh homer of the season.
"I think the biggest thing is we're playing with energy," Wallace said. "You see the whole team come together. We're trying to turn this thing around, like Tony said. We're going to play with energy and work hard and see what we can do. It's fun to play in that atmosphere, and I think the guys are really buying in."
The homer gave Gonzalez all the breathing room he would need.
The 29-year-old has bounced between four organizations since making his debut with Arizona in 2003. It's been a long journey over the last three years as he's tried to salvage his career.
Gonzalez hardly looked nervous, however, with the ball in his hand. He threw first seven pitches for strikes and was met with little resistance by the Pirates.
"I throw different," Gonzalez said. "In `09, I just threw a lot of fastballs and a slider. Right now I throw changeups, curveballs, (cutters) in every count, so I feel much better."
NOTES: Pittsburgh 2B Neil Walker (back) began baseball activities and could return to the team by Friday. Walker hasn't played since Aug. 26 ... Karstens has been cleared to do "flat ground" work but there remains no timetable for his return. Karstens left Friday's loss in Milwaukee in the first inning with what's been diagnosed as a hip flexor strain ... The series continues on Tuesday when Pittsburgh's Wandy Rodriguez (9-13, 3.86 ERA) faces Houston's Jordan Lyles (3-10, 5.46) ... The Astros are 3-10 under DeFrancesco ... Houston recalled C Carlos Corporan , RHP Chuckie Fick , LHP Dallas Keuchel and OF J.D. Martinez after the game.