Astros blank Pirates

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HOUSTON – The Pirates’ up-and-down offense took another dip Wednesday.

The Pirates mustered only five hits – all singles — off of starter Wandy Rodriguez in a 5-0 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

Rodriguez (8-6) threw the second complete game of his career. He matched his career-high with 11 strikeouts and walked one, as the Pirates were held to one run or fewer for the 23rd time in 85 games this year.

Rodriguez, who threw a season-high 125 pitches, faced 31 batters, four above the minimum thanks to a pair of double plays.

Only one Pirate base runner advanced past first, and they had only three hits in the final seven innings.

Pirates starter Charlie Morton (1-2), in his first start since tossing six scoreless innings against the Marlins last week, struggled. The right-hander allowed five runs on 10 hits in four innings.

Lance Berkman hit a two-run double, and Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada added RBI-hits for the Astros.

The Astros led 5-0 after four innings and the Pirates never threatened Rodriguez, who entered the game with a 3-4 record and a 5.37 career ERA against the Pirates. The only other complete game for the 30-year-old left-hander came against the Mets on July 6, 2007.

The Pirates had one runner in scoring position all game, when the LaRoche brothers, Andy and Adam, hit consecutive singles in the second. But Robinzon Diaz and Ramon Vazquez — starting his sixth game in a row for injured Freddy Sanchez (back) — struck out to end the inning.

Vazquez singled with two out in the fifth, but pinch-hitter Steve Pearce struck out on three pitches. Pearce is batting .083 this season (1-for-12).

Garrett Jones singled in the seventh, but Andy LaRoche grounded into a double play. In the eighth, pinch-hitter Brandon Moss hit into an inning-ending double play.

The Astros scored two runs in the third inning and added three in the fourth for a 5-0 lead.

With one out in the third, the Astros strung together four searing base hits. Michael Bourn tripled to center. Miguel Tejada singled in Bourn for a 1-0 lead. Lance Berkman hit a 420-foot double, but Tejada was caught at the plate on shortstop Jack Wilson’s relay throw. Carlos Lee doubled home Berkman for a 2-0 lead.

The Astros took advantage of a rare Pirates defensive breakdown in the fourth. With one out, Adam LaRoche failed to cover first on Hunter Pence’s routine grounder to Ramon Vazquez. Later in the inning, Bourn hit a run-scoring single, and Berkman hit a two-run double for a 5-0 lead.

— By John Grupp

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Pirates-Astros lineups, Adam batting sixth

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Adam LaRoche, who is a .417 career hitter against Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez (5 for 12), will bat sixth for the first time this year, and second baseman Freddy Sanchez (back spasms) will miss his sixth consecutive game as the Pirates try to win a road series for the first time in more than six weeks (Nationals, May 18-21). The Pirates haven’t won a series against an NL Central team since winning two of three games against the Cardinals at PNC Park from May 12-14.

PIRATES – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jack Wilson ss, 3. Delwyn Young lf, 4. Garrett Jones rf, 5. Andy LaRoche 3b, 6. Adam LaRoche 1b, 7. Robinzon Diaz c, 8. Ramon Vazquez 2b, 9. Charlie Morton (1-1, 2.65)

ASTROS – 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Miguel Tejada ss, 3. Lance Berkman 1b, 4. Carlos Lee 1b, 5. Geoff Blum 3b, 6. Hunter Pence rf, 7. Kazuo Matsui 2b, 8. Humberto Quintero c, 9. lhp Wandy Rodriguez (7-6, 3.21)

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Pirates, Wilson beat Astros

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HOUSTON – Jack Wilson homered, drove in three runs and made a couple big defensive plays to lead the Pirates past the Astros, 6-3, on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.

The victory is the Pirates’ third in their past eight games and ends a low-scoring skid of one run in their past two games.

Wilson homered in the third inning for a 2-0 lead and hit a run-scoring single during a four-run seventh that gave his team a 6-2 lead.

Wilson also robbed Miguel Tejada of a base hit to open the sixth inning, and Tejada appeared to stop running through the bag. In the eighth, Wilson started an inning-ending double play after the Astros had loaded the bases on reliever John Grabow.

Andrew McCutchen went 2 for 5 and fellow rookie Garrett Jones went 2 for 3 with two stolen bases.

The beneficiary of the Pirates’ four-run seventh was Paul Maholm (6-4), who won for only the third time in his past 14 starts – but for the second time in 11 days. Maholm, who blew a 5-0 early lead against the Mets in his last start, allowed two earned runs on six hits in six innings.

Astros starter Brian Moehler (5-5), who tossed his first complete game in nearly nine years in his last start against the Pirates on May 29, allowed four runs – three earned – in 6 1/3 innings.

Matt Capps pitched a perfect ninth inning for his 19th save.

Wilson has 10 home runs and 60 runs scored against the Astros – the most against any NL team. With his two-run homer in the third, Wilson surpassed the Pirates’ scoring output in their previous 22 innings (one).

It also continued Wilson’s power surge whenever he steps into Minute Maid Park. Ten of his 36 career home runs on the road have come in Houston.

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Pirates-Astros lineups; Sanchez out again

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Freddy Sanchez will miss his fifth game in a row with a lower back strain. Ramon Vasquez, who is batting .327 in his past 49 at bats, will start at second.

Lineups

PIRATES – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jack Wilson ss, 3. Brandon Moss lf, 4. Adam LaRoche 1b, 5. Garrett Jones rf, 6. Andy LaRoche 3b, 7. Ramon Vasquez 2b, 8. Jason Jaramillo c, 9. lhp Paul Maholm (5-4. 4.69)

ASTROS – 1. Michael Bourn cf, 2. Miguel Tejada ss, 3. Lance Berkman 1b, 4. Carlos Lee lf, 5. Hunter Pence rf, 6. Ivan Rodriguez c, 7. Kazuo Matsui 2b, 8. Jeff Keppinger 3b, 9. rhp Brian Moehler (5-4, 5.64)

— John Grupp

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Pirates lose to Astros, Hampton again

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HOUSTON – If it seems like a millennium since the Pirates beat Mike Hampton, that would be just about right.

Hampton, the Pirates’ biggest pitching nemesis, once again made them his personal play-toy in a 4-1 Astros victory on Monday night at Minute Maid Park.

Hampton (5-5) allowed one run on three hits over seven innings to win his 10th consecutive start against the Pirates dating to May 9, 2000.

It’s the longest streak against the Pirates since Robin Roberts won 15 consecutive starts from 1951-53.

Hampton is 14-1 with a 1.76 ERA in his past 15 decisions against the Pirates.

“I don’t know really how to explain it,” manager John Russell said before the game. “I don’t know if anyone could explain why he has that success against Pittsburgh. I don’t know if you asked him if he could really explain.”

Hampton, a 36-year-old left-hander, continues to master the Pirates despite being a mediocre pitcher against everyone else. He is 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA against the Pirates this year, and 1-5 with a 6.46 ERA vs. the rest of baseball.

Virgil Vasquez (1-2) allowed four runs on seven hits through seven innings in the loss, as the Pirates lost for the 24th time in 35 games against NL Central foes.

Jose Valerde struck out the side in the ninth for his seventh save.

The Pirates scored their only run on Garrett Jones’ double and Robinzon Diaz’s two-out single in the seventh. It is their lone run in the past 20 innings.

The Astros took a 2-0 lead off Vasquez in the first inning on a two-run triple to right field by Geoff Blum. The ball appeared to bounce off the yellow line at the top of the wall, eluding a leaping Garrett Jones.

Vasquez got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth when Humberto Quintero grounded his first pitch into an inning-ending double play. But Vasquez walked Hampton to open the fifth. After a Michael Bourn bunt single, Tejada ripped a two-run double down the third-base line for a 4-0 Astros edge.

— John Grupp

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Pirates working hard on offense

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· The Pirates, who have scored one run or fewer in more than one-fourth of their games this season, took early batting practice this afternoon at Minute Maid Park. It’s something manager John Russell does at least once on each road trip. The Pirates have scored one or fewer runs in 21 of their 82 games, including Sunday’s 5-0 loss at Florida.

“It’s a time to work on a few things and kind of relax and use the time without having to rush,” he said.

· Left fielder Garrett Jones, who has two home runs in the past four games, will bat cleanup for the first time in his major-league career. Steve Pearce will start at first base for the first time since 2007, and only the third time in 43 games as a big-leaguer. Adam LaRoche, who is 0-for-5 lifetime against Astros starter Mike Hampton, is getting the day off.

· Astros starter Mike Hampton has won his past nine starts against the Pirates, dating to May 2000. It’s the longest streak against the Pirates since Robin Roberts won 15 consecutive starts from 1951-53. Hampton is 13-1 in his past 14 decisions against the Pirates, including a 9-1 victory May 5 at PNC Park.

“I don’t know really how to explain it,” Russell said. “I don’t know if anyone could explain why he has that success against Pittsburgh. I don’t know if you asked him if he could really explain.”

— John Grupp

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Pirates starting lineups, Sanchez out again

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All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez will miss his fourth-straight game with lower back pain when the Pirates continue their nine-game road trip with the start of a three-game series at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The roof is closed, mercifully, as temperatures are in the mid-to-high 90s, and it feels even hotter.

STARTING LINEUP:

PIRATES – 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jack Wilson ss, 3. Delwyn Young rf, 4. Garrett Jones lf, 5. Andy LaRoche 3b, 6. Steve Pearce 1b, 7. Robinzon Diaz c, 8. Ramon Vazquez 2b, 9. rhp Virgil Vasquez (1-1, 3.75)

ASTROS – 1. Michael Bourn cf; 2. Miguel Tejada ss, 3. Lance Berkman 1b, 4. Carlos Lee lf, 5. Geoff Blum 3b, 6. Hunter Pence rf, 7. Kazuo Matsui 2b, 8. Humberto Quintero c, 9. lhp Mike Hampton (4-5. 4.44)

— John Grupp

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Sanchez an All-Star for third time

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MIAMI — Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez today was named as a reserve for the National League squad for the All-Star Game.

Sanchez is hitting .316 with six home runs and 33 RBI. He has made just one error this season, dropping a pop-up May 2.

He has missed three straight games, including today against the Florida Marlins, due to a muscle spasm in his right lower back.

It is Sanchez’s third All-Star selection. He is the only player to play second base, third base and shortstop in an All-Star Game.

In 2007, Sanchez became the first Pirates infielder to make the All-Star squad in back-to-back seasons since Phil Garner in 1980-81.

In 2006, Sanchez received 856,685 write-in votes to gain a bid for the game at PNC Pak. he played one inning at shortstop and four at second base, and went 0 for 2 at the plate.

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Jones gets plenty of playing time

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MIAMI — Garrett Jones might not fully realize it yet, but he’s in line to get regular playing time for the foreseeable future.

“It’s still early. I didn’t know I was going to be in there today,” Jones said last night after the Pirates 5-3 loss against the Marlins. “It feels good, getting in there again and knowing John (Russell) has confidence in me.”

In the seventh inning, Jones hit a long solo homer to right field. It was his second blast in three games. With Ryan Doumit out, the lineup hasn’t had much power the past few weeks. That’s why Russell is almost giddy to have Jones around and will play him often now.

“He’s a good athlete,” Russell said. “I saw him in the minor leagues and I didn’t like it when he was on the other team because of the things he could do to hurt you. He’s the threat of being able to change the score pretty quickly.”

• Freddy Sanchez (lower back) is out for the third game in a row.

• All-Star rosters will be announced this afternoon. Sanchez is the most likely Pirates’ rep. Remember, if Sanchez makes the team, he needs only 600 plate appearances — he already has 324 — for the vesting option in his contract to automatically kick in for 2010.

• Lineups for this afternoon’s game:

PIRATES — 1. Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jack Wilson ss, 3. Brandon Moss rf, 4. Adam LaRoche 1b, 5. Garrett Jones lf, 6. Andy LaRoche 3b, 7. Ramon Vazquez 2b, 8. Jason Jaramillo c, 9. Ross Ohlendorf (7-6, 4.41) rhp

MARLINS — 1. Chris Coghlan lf, 2. Emilio Bonifacio 3b, 3. Hanley Ramirez ss, 4. Jorge Cantu 1b, 5. Jeremy Hermida rf, 6. Dan Uggla 2b, 7. Cody Ross cf, 8. John Baker c, 9. Ricky Nolasco (5-6, 5.99) rhp

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Clear skies … so far

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MIAMI — My hotel is about 20 minutes down the highway from Land Shark Stadium. As I was making the short walk to my rental car, the skies opened and I was drenched in about 30 seconds. By the time I was halfway down the road to the stadium, it was clear and sunny. Not a drop of water anywhere. Florida weather … ugh.

So far, it looks as if tonight’s game against the Marlins will begin on time. But check back in 10 minutes; things could be totally different.

• The Pirates have eight rookies on their 25-man active roster. That’s the most in the majors, one more than the Cardinals, Padres and Reds (seven apiece).

• Going into tonight’s game, Pirates leadoff hitters rank first in the NL and tied with the Tigers for second in the majors with 44 RBI. The Rangers have gotten 52 RBI from their leadoff spot.

• Ryan Doumit went 0 for 5, including a strikeout, today as the DH in a Gulf Coast League game.

• Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel today made their pro debuts in the GCL game against the Yankees’ rookie club. Singh worked one inning (19 pitches) and allowed a run on two hits and got one strikeout. Patel went one inning (eight pitches) and got one strikeout.

• Lineups for tonight’s game:

PIRATES — 1.Andrew McCutchen cf, 2. Jack Wilson ss, 3. Delwyn Young rf, 4. Adam LaRoche 1b, 5. Garrett Jones lf, 6. Andy LaRoche 3b, 7. Robinzon Diaz c, 8. Ramon Vazquez 2b, 9. Zach Duke (8-6, 3.13) lhp

MARLINS — 1. Emilio Bonifacio 3b, 2. Jeremy Hermida lf, 3. Hanley Ramirez ss, 4. Jorge Cantu 1b, 5. Dan Uggla 2b, 6. Cody Ross cf, 7. Ronny Paulino c, 8. Carroll rf, 9. Andrew Miller (2-4, 4.45) lhp

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