If the Pirates were hoping that simply turning the calendar page would get them back to winning baseball, they were mistaken.
After an 11-17 August dropped them out of wild card position in the National League, the Pirates have now started their first relevant September in more than a decade with three straight losses. Their latest, a 5-1 defeat to the last-place Houston Astros at PNC Park Monday afternoon, extended their losing streak to four.
Brett Wallace’s three-run homer in the fifth inning was the big blow against Pirates starter Jeff Locke, putting the Astros (42-93) en route to their second win in three games. Houston pushed across five runs in five innings against Locke, who was making his first MLB start of 2012.
Houston starter Edgar Gonzalez got back in the big leagues for the first time this year, and the 29-year-old limited the punchless Bucs to just one run in 5 1/3 innings. The Astros bullpen did exemplary work the rest of the way, with Mickey Storey and Wesley Wright combining for 3 2/3 innings of hitless relief.
Pittsburgh (70-64) is now two games behind St. Louis for the NL’s second wild card spot, just four days after taking two out of three from the Cardinals to climb within one game. The Pirates have gone 10-20 since topping out at 16 games above .500 Aug. 1.
Garrett Jones collected three hits for the second straight day and Pedro Alvarez tripled and scored the Pirates’ only run of the Labor Day matinee. It hardly resembled the Pittsburgh team that reached double-digit hits Sunday afternoon in a 12-8 loss to Milwaukee.
Jose Altuve, Tyler Green and Wallace – the top three batters in the Houston order – combined for seven of the visitors’ 10 hits. The Astros won for just the 14th time in 67 road games this season.
Locke struck out six Astros and walked only one, but after allowing single runs in the first and third innings, the rookie lefty was a victim of the long ball in the fifth. Altuve and Green reached on back-to-back singles in front of Wallace, who finished the day 3-for-4. The Houston first baseman cracked Locke’s first-pitch curveball into the right-center field grandstand for his seventh home run of the year.
“He had hit two fastballs for singles so I tried the curveball but hung it,” Locke said. “I felt really good today and had some confidence out there. It was a bad pitch to Wallace and it cost me.”
Alvarez led off the bottom of the fifth with a triple and Clint Barmes drove him in with a single to break Gonzalez’ shutout, but the Pirates missed an opportunity to climb closer in the sixth.
Travis Snider walked to start the frame and Jones lined a single to right-center to put two runners on with one out, but Storey entered and shut the Bucs down. He struck out Gaby Sanchez on three pitches and induced Alvarez to bounce out. From there the Pirates went down quietly, as their last nine batters failed to reach.
Pittsburgh’s bullpen was just as good, however. Rookie Kyle McPherson surrendered a pair of hits in the sixth, but escaped and finished with two scoreless innings. Hisanori Takahashi and Jared Hughes covered the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, and they each struck out three Astros in shutout work.
The Pirates get about 24 hours to regroup before playing the middle game of a three-tilt series with Houston Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s Wandy Rodriguez gets a crack at his former team, while Jordan Lyles opposes him at 7:05 p.m.