Once a part of the NL playoff race, the Pittsburgh Pirates are on the verge of hitting a new low.
The major league-worst Houston Astros seek their first sweep in exactly four months when they host the faltering Pirates on Sunday.
Pittsburgh was a season-best 16 games over .500 (63-47) and trailed Cincinnati by 2 1/2 games for the NL Central lead Aug. 8. The Pirates (74-77) then dropped the first two games of a series with Houston and are 11-30 since - tying Cleveland for the worst record in baseball during that span.
They've lost five straight and 13 of 15 following Saturday's 4-1 defeat to drop all but out of contention for the league's second wild card. Pittsburgh, 6 1/2 games behind St. Louis for that spot, needs to go 7-4 the rest of the way just to avoid its 20th consecutive losing season.
The Pirates have scored either one run or none in four of their last five games."It's almost like Little League where we need to hit the ball hard where it's pitched and not try to do things that aren't there," said manager Clint Hurdle , who was ejected in the second inning Saturday. "We're not crisp and we're not performing the way we need to."
Pittsburgh, hoping to avoid being the victim of Houston's first sweep since it took all three games against the Chicago Cubs from May 21-23, will send A.J. Burnett to the mound Sunday.
The right-hander has lost four decisions over his last five outings despite a solid 3.68 ERA, receiving four runs of support over 29 1-3 innings during that stretch.
Burnett (15-8, 3.64 ERA), who hasn't won this many games since going 18-10 for Toronto in 2008, gave up two runs in six innings of a 6-0 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday.
He pitched well in his last start versus the Astros, allowing two runs in 7 1-3 innings of a 5-3 victory July 26.
Houston (50-102) has won five of its last six at home after Jason Castro hit a tie-breaking three-run homer in the seventh Saturday, and will seek its third sweep of the season when Jordan Lyles takes the hill.
Like Burnett, Lyles (4-11, 5.40) hasn't received much run support of late, including when he gave up five runs - four earned - in 4 2-3 innings of a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 4.
The Astros have scored three runs with Lyles on the mound over his last three starts, with the right-hander going 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA in that stretch.
He allowed four runs and struck out six in five innings of Houston's 7-6 win over Philadelphia last Sunday."He needs to learn how to be a winning pitcher, and the only way to do that is to give us a chance to win every time he pitches," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "If he can do that, his win/losses will turn around the other way."
Lyles is 0-3 with a 7.97 ERA in four career starts versus the Pirates, including three this season. Andrew McCutchen is 7 for 11 with three doubles off Lyles, while Garrett Jones is 5 for 10 with two homers and a double.
|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||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|
|September 21, 2012||Edgar Gonzalez||Day-to-Day||Strained right hamstring|
|September 07, 2012||Jose Altuve||Day-to-Day||Left game - strained left abdominal|
|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|
HOUSTON (AP) -- If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to salvage something positive out of this once-promising season they'll have to finish strong.
Manager Clint Hurdle thought A.J. Burnett's solid outing on Sunday illustrated that idea perfectly.
Burnett allowed one run in eight innings for his 16th win, and Josh Harrison tied a career high with four hits to jumpstart Pittsburgh's offense in an 8-1 win over Houston to avoid a sweep.
The win snapped a five-game skid for the Pirates, who at 75-77 are in danger of posting their 20th straight losing season, which would extend their major North American professional sports record.
The Pirates were 16 games above .500 early last month, but have collapsed since then, including winning just three times in the past 16 games to make their chances of securing the second NL wild-card slim.
"I thought A.J. set another very good example for everybody today about finishing," he said. "Regardless of the environment ... or what's going on around you, his mindset today was to go out and put a foot down - and he did that."
Burnett (16-8), who allowed four hits and struck out a season-high 11, won for the first time since Aug. 16 to become the first Pittsburgh pitcher to win more than 15 games since 1991. He had started six games with four losses between victories.
He wasn't too concerned about reaching the milestone win.
"I just want to put my team in a position to win and get us in a good position at the end of the year," he said.
Harrison provided the spark Hurdle was looking for in the lineup, and Jose Tabata drove in two runs as the Pirates had a season-high 18 hits. Their eight runs were six more than they scored in the first two games of the series combined.
"We're all in it together, whether you're up or whether you're down or whether you're sideways, we're all tied together," Hurdle said. "We need to remember that."
Scott Moore had a solo homer in the sixth, and had three of Houston's four hits to come a triple short of the cycle.
"Scotty Moore was our big star today," Houston interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "But overall, A.J. just shut us down pretty much the whole game."
Houston starter Jordan Lyles (4-12) pitched four scoreless innings before running into trouble in the fifth. Alex Presley and Harrison singled before Andrew McCutchen walked to load the bases and chase Lyles.
Lyles allowed six hits and three runs with four strikeouts to fall to 0-4 in five career starts against the Pirates.
Wesley Wright came on for Lyles and hit pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez to send a run home and put Pittsburgh up 1-0.
Wright was lifted for Mickey Storey with one out, and Storey walked pinch-hitter Pedro Alvarez on four pitches to score another run.
Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas hit consecutive RBI singles to push Pittsburgh's lead to 4-0.
Harrison singled before scoring on a double by McCutchen made it 5-0 in the sixth inning.
Harrison wasn't sure what he thought about Hurdle calling him a spark, but prides himself on being ready whenever he gets a chance to start.
"I'm going in there and not trying to do too much," Harrison said. "I just want to compete in the box and play good defense."
Moore doubled in the first inning and Houston didn't get another hit until his single with two outs in the third inning. Jose Altuve walked and stole second base in the third, and was out at home on Moore's single.
Pittsburgh added three runs in the eighth on RBI singles by Alvarez, Tabata and Burnett.
Burnett's performance continued a streak of 26 straight starts where he pitched into the sixth inning or longer.
NOTES: Zane Smith (16-10) and John Smiley (20-8) were the previous Pittsburgh pitchers to win more than 15 games in a season. ... Right-hander Bud Norris is scheduled to start for the Astros on Wednesday. But he could have his start pushed back, because he has flu-like symptoms and is still dealing with a blister on the index finger of his throwing hand. DeFrancesco hopes he feels better because he'd like him to make two more starts before the season ends. ... Houston opens a three-game series with St. Louis on Monday while the Pirates travel to play the Mets.