Pirates second baseman Neil Walker makes a play on a ground ball against the Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston Wednesday.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HOUSTON -- The juxtaposition of the Pirates' biggest offensive performers Wednesday night represented the way the team has succeeded this season.
One, Neil Walker, was drafted by the Pirates, came up through their minor league organization and is viewed as one of the pieces around which the franchise can build. The other, Xavier Paul, was a waiver claim in late April.
The Pirates have won lately despite numerous injuries, in part because both types of players have performed well.
Walker had three RBIs, Xavier Paul hit his first home run, and the Pirates defeated the Houston Astros, 7-3, at Minute Maid Park to push their record above .500 (34-33) at the latest point in the season since 1999.
Game: Pirates at Astros, 2:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP James McDonald (4-4, 4.80) vs. RHP Jordan Lyles (0-1, 4.15).
Key matchup: Lyles vs. his inexperience: The 20-year-old rookie will make his fourth career start.
Of note: McDonald struck out eight in six scoreless innings in his most recent start against the Astros May 8.
Walker went 2 for 3 with a triple and Paul, who entered the game as a pinch-hitter and stayed in at right field, was 3 for 3 with two runs and two RBIs.
"Xavier came in and did a really good job too, getting three hits, and giving us the cushion that we really needed," Walker said.
On Aug. 15, 1999, the Pirates were 59-58, thanks to a 2-0 win against the Astros with Todd Ritchie on the mound. The Pirates have now won four of their past five games and secured a series victory against the Astros, their 13th of the season.
Walker gave the Pirates an early lead, and Paul extended the lead late. Walker is 5 for 10 in the past three games, raising his average to .261, up 10 points from Sunday.
"There's some pause in his swing, some separation in his swing," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's more under control."
Paul entered the game in the sixth and doubled, homered and singled in the final four innings. His three hits, and Walker's two, were part of a 14-hit offensive outburst.
Walker got to work early. He sliced a triple into right field in the first inning just out of the reach of a sliding Hunter Pence, and Andrew McCutchen, who had walked, scored to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead.
Matt Diaz doubled down the left-field line in the third, and Walker ripped a single up the middle to up the lead to 2-0.
"It's nice," Walker said. "We had to grind that one out tonight so it was good to get ahead early."
Walker was hitting .191 against left-handers entering the game.
Paul pinch-hit for Morton in the sixth and doubled to left-center field. He went to third on Jose Tabata's single and scored on pinch-hitter Garrett Jones' single to right field to tie the score, 3-3. Tabata scored on McCutchen's bouncing fielder's choice to put the Pirates ahead, 4-3. Jones went to third on a throwing error on the play and scored when Walker hit a sacrifice fly to left for his third RBI of the game.
Catcher Michael McKenry, who got his first major league hit in the second, singled in the seventh, and Paul hit the first pitch he saw, a fastball high and outside, the opposite way into the short porch in left field off Fernando Rodriguez for a 7-3 cushion.
"When you get in there, just go hard," Paul said. "Don't worry about results."
Both offenses worked the starting pitchers hard: Charlie Morton threw 109 pitches, J.A. Happ 108, through five innings. The Pirates took advantage of the Astros bullpen, while Daniel McCutchen threw three scoreless innings and Joel Hanrahan recorded his 19th save.
"Danny did a heck of a job coming in and putting out the fire, per se," Walker said.
Morton (7-3) earned the win, giving up eight hits in five innings. He did not pitch as well as in recent starts, but got key outs when he needed them.
"You got to give Charlie some credit," Hurdle said. "He battled through, he didn't back away. He did not want to come out but the pitch count was what it was."
Morton could not work out of trouble in the third. Michael Bourn and Jeff Keppinger singled, and Brett Wallace's single scored Bourn to reduce the Pirates' lead to 2-1.
The Astros tied it in the fourth. Morton walked J.R Towles, who advanced to second on Happ's sac bunt. Bourn singled to left, and Towles barely beat Jose Tabata's throw to tie the score, 2-2.
With Chris Johnson on first base and two outs in the fifth inning, Morton left a fastball up to Clint Barmes, who doubled and scored Johnson. The Astros took a 3-2 lead on the play.