Pitching on six years' rest against the Pirates, Mike Hampton last night showed that at age 36, with just 13 starts over the previous three years because of various maladies, he hasn't forgotten how to beat them.
Hampton won his seventh consecutive start against the Pirates with a 4-1 decision in which he allowed just two hits through five innings and threw six of Houston's eight shutout innings before Adam LaRoche homered in the ninth.
It gave Hampton, absent all of the 2006 and '07 because of injuries before returning to limited duty late last season with Atlanta, an 11-3 career mark against the Pirates.
"I don't come in here saying, 'Man, I'm glad I'm facing Pittsburgh,' " Hampton said afterward. But it has been a long time since he last shut out anyone -- 17 starts and nearly four calendar years ago, to be exact. On May 31, 2005, he tossed four shutout innings for Atlanta against the Washington Nationals.
- Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 12:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (season debut) vs. RHP Russ Ortiz (0-0, 6.75)
- Key matchup: Each pitcher vs. his pitch count. Karstens will be making his season debut after being skipped in Cincinnati because of a rainout, and Ortiz will be coming out of the bullpen after two appearances there, including a scoreless inning Monday against the Pirates.
- Of note: With bases loaded, the Pirates are 5 for 7 with a home run and 12 RBIs.
"Still has that nasty sinker," said Jack Wilson, scratched from the lineup just before game time because a bruised middle finger on his left hand, though he got a pinch-hit single off Geoff Geary in the seventh and is expected to play today. And Wilson and the Pirates last faced Hampton (1-1) in 2003.
"He never pitched when I was in [Atlanta]," LaRoche added, half-teasingly. They played together with the Braves in 2004-06. Hampton went 13-9 in 31 starts that first season, 5-3 in 12 starts the next and then on the disabled list for three years of his life.
"He was great in the clubhouse. He was honorary football coach for his kids' team that summer.
"He was good tonight, though."
On a night when every player and coach in the major leagues wore No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson's anniversary for breaking baseball's color barrier, Hampton certainly had the Pirates' number. As always.
After taking part in three victories and three losses head-to-head as a reliever, Hampton lost his first start against the Pirates in 1995, and got no decision in a Houston loss in the second in 1996.
Since then, he has been pretty much unbeatable. His teams are 12-2 when he faces the Pirates: 5-2 with Houston; 2-0 with the Mets (2000); 3-0 with Colorado ('01-02); and 1-0 with Atlanta in his last start against the Pirates Sept. 7, 2003.
"He's always been one of the best when he's healthy," LaRoche said of a left-hander who has pitched in eight postseasons, gone to two All-Star Games and finished second to Randy Johnson for the 1999 Cy Young Award.
"Never gives in. Movement on all his pitches. We were getting some pitches to put in play, but nothing to drive. That's what he does."
Still, after all these years, after all these arm injuries. In fact, as Wilson remembered, Hampton was all set to start April 3, 2008, against the Pirates when, moments before the game, he strained a pectoral muscle that put him right back on the DL.
If Hampton was wet in the early going last night, it was more because of a steady drizzle than sweat.
He needed only 11, 10 and 11 pitches to set down the Pirates the first three innings. He allowed just two hits -- to Nate McLouth in the first and Craig Monroe in the fifth -- through five innings.
Singles by Luis Cruz and McLouth in the sixth, Hampton's final inning of the night, provided the biggest Pirates' threat of the game.
Ryan Doumit then gave a 3-2 pitch a ride to the left-field corner, where Carlos Lee snagged it at the wall and squelched that threat by a few hairs.
"It's one of those things, we all know the ball doesn't carry well here early on," Doumit said.
The Astros mounted what was for them an offensive tear.
This, after all, was the club that scored in only one of its previous 27 innings -- and just two runs at that.
Houston scored just two runs in each the first and third innings off Ross Ohlendorf (0-2), but it proved enough. Lee drove in three of them, after Ohlendorf allowed the bases to get loaded, with a sacrifice fly in the first and a two-run double.
"I definitely set a bad tone with that first batter," Ohlendorf said of a four-pitch walk to leadoff man Michael Bourn. "I think not being able to locate my fastball and not having it sink like last game [a 2-1 loss to a one-hitting Chris Carpenter in St. Louis] were the main things. I think next time will go a lot better."
"It wasn't the best conditions to pitch in," Doumit said, "but he didn't have his good stuff."
And Hampton did.
Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com .