HOUSTON -- So, what is it about Mike Hampton, exactly?
Houston's 36-year-old left-hander, 1-4 with a 6.43 ERA against all other opponents, improved to 3-0 with a 0.90 ERA against the Pirates in carrying the Astros to a 9-1 cruising last night at Minute Maid Park: He allowed one run and five singles over seven innings, never breaking a sweat in the process.
Wait. There is more ...
• Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (3-2, 3.82) vs. RHP Roy Oswalt (2-2, 4.28).
• Key matchup: Jack Wilson has more hits off Oswalt, Houston's ace, than any opponent. He has batted .364 average -- 24 for 66 -- with five doubles and a triple. St. Louis' Albert Pujols has 23 hits off Oswalt.
• Of note: The series features the National League's top three in doubles: Houston's Miguel Tejada has 20, and the Pirates' Freddy Sanchez (19) and Adam LaRoche (18) are right behind.
Hampton is 13-3 for his career against the Pirates and has won nine consecutive meetings, making him the first pitcher to achieve that in the past half-century. Tom Glavine is the only other since 1955 to beat the Pirates eight times in a row.
Hampton's most recent loss: May 30, 1999.
"The man just owns our bats, you know," outfielder Nyjer Morgan said. "I don't know what it is."
It surely is not that he is left-handed: The Pirates are 7-4 when any other left-hander starts.
And, to hear Hampton tell it, it surely is not he feeds off that history.
"I really didn't know until someone brought it up this year," he said of his streak. "It's been three years since I faced them, and the lineup's totally different and does just keep changing. I don't think there's anything to it, other than I was able to keep the ball off the middle of the plate for the most part."
Well, maybe it is simply that Hampton pitches well, coincidence or not, when he sees the Pirates. His multifaceted repertoire, robotically down in the zone, looked no less effective when he put up the same line -- one run over seven innings -- in the Astros' 2-1 victory Sunday at PNC Park.
"He's pitched great every time we've seen him, and this looked a lot like Sunday," Pirates manager John Russell said. "He threw a great game here. He mixed his pitches, threw any pitch he wanted at any time so you don't see a pattern ... you just don't see us square up against him."
The mixing was most maddening for the batters, and it apparently led to many of the 13 groundouts Hampton drew.
"You really don't know what to expect up there," Pirates catcher Jason Jaramillo said. "I know I felt a little tentative every time up there."
And this the day after Jaramillo ran up four RBIs against the New York Mets.
"I never faced Hampton before, but he sure looked tough to me."
That ended the Pirates' three-game winning streak and dropped them to four games under .500 at 25-29. Fun point there: They would be two above .500 if they beat Hampton all three times.
Another modest roll ended, in that Jeff Karstens' string of upswing starts crashed and burned: He was charged with six runs, eight hits and four walks over 5 2/3 innings, most of that damage coming in Houston's seven-run sixth that also saw Carlos Lee club a grand slam off Evan Meek.
Karstens maintained top form through most of the first five innings but began to elevate his fastball in the sixth, never wise in one of baseball's tightest confines.
"You can't do that here," Russell said. "Overall, I thought he pitched well. But it got away from him in the sixth."
"I made some really, really good pitches, and I made some poor pitches," Karstens said. "I feel like I've made some progress in my last few starts. I just need to shake it off, watch some video and go from there."
The Pirates pulled within 2-1 in the fifth when Delwyn Young singled, took one base each on two groundouts and -- when the Astros opted to pitch to Jack Wilson with Karstens on deck -- scored on Wilson's single into right.
Next came the sixth, built on just four hits along with four walks.
Lance Berkman walked off Karstens, aggressively took second on a flyout to right, stole third and, after a walk, both runners scored on Humberto Quintero's triple. Hampton's sacrifice fly and Michael Bourn's double chased Karstens.
Meek relieved and got rocked, walking two and serving up a meaty curveball that Lee crushed into the left-field facade for his 13th career grand slam.
Morgan recorded his fifth outfield assist, adding to the Pirates' 18 that lead Major League Baseball, and it was a gem.
Lee singled into the left-field corner with Hunter Pence on first. The speedy Pence made it to third, but Morgan's throw went to second and nailed Lee. The key, as Morgan described it, was seeing -- albeit only peripherally -- Houston third base coach Dave Clark put up a stop sign for Pence and knowing that, in a rarity, he could throw behind the runner.
"If I don't see Clark, Pence can score if I throw behind," Morgan said.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published June 6, 2009 4:00 AM