The Pirates' Garrett Jones, left, receives a high five from teammate Andrew McCutchen after hitting a three-run home run in the first inning against the Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston Thursday.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HOUSTON -- The Pirates' 2011 season has contained all kinds of firsts, streaks and hasn't-happened-since moments, events that came as a byproduct of success after years of losing.
Thursday, they added a sweep to the list.
The Pirates hung on to beat the Houston Astros, 5-4, at Minute Maid Park to complete their first three-game sweep of the season.
The Pirates (35-33) moved to two games over .500 this late in the season for the first time since July 2, 1999. They have now won four games in a row and five of their past six and are three games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division.
"We put ourselves in a position a number of times to get a sweep," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We closed the deal today."
Game: Pirates at Indians, 7:05 p.m, Progressive Field.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Kevin Correia (8-5, 3.73) vs. RHP Josh Tomlin (7-4, 4.14).
Key matchup: The teams' scouting departments go head to head. Correia has never faced the Indians, and one Pirate -- Lyle Overbay -- has one at-bat against Tomlin in his career.
Of note: Tomlin has not walked more than one batter in a game since April 10.
As was the case Wednesday night, the Pirates picked up a mediocre performance from their starting pitcher with offensive production. Thursday, the defense chipped in with game-saving plays.
After scoring three runs or fewer in the seven games before Wednesday, the Pirates have scored five or more in the past two games. Garrett Jones, starting at first base for the first time this season, popped a mistake fastball from Astros starter Jordan Lyles over the right-field fence for a three-run home run, his seventh, in the first inning.
"I was just trying to put it in play, and he left a fastball right over the heart of the plate," Jones said.
After that, Lyles, a 20-year-old rookie making his fourth career start, retired 15 consecutive batters, striking out five in a row at one point. He didn't allow another baserunner until there were two outs in the sixth.
That was when Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker had back-to-back singles and prompted the Astros to go to the bullpen. Left-hander Sergio Escalona replaced Lyles, but Jones lined a ball to center field that a diving Michael Bourn couldn't catch, and McCutchen scored. The ball glanced off the heel of Bourn's glove and was ruled an error.
"I hit that ball well," Jones said. "I was happy to have the hit against the lefty and just squared up the ball well. It would have been a great play on his part."
Josh Harrison, back in the lineup and playing third base after missing time because of a tight right oblique muscle, doubled to right to drive in Walker. Jones also tried to score on the hit but was thrown out on a close play at the plate to end the inning.
"I was chugging, running out of steam," Jones said. "I didn't feel him tag me, kind of ran into him, slid into him."
Walker's run gave the Pirates a 5-3 lead.
Starter James McDonald (5-4) earned the win and allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings, walking four batters, one intentionally, and striking out four.
"He wasn't able to lock down his command with his fastball as much as he needed to," Hurdle said. "He wasn't able to throw much of his secondary stuff behind in counts, and they were squaring up his fastball."
Though he only allowed three runs, McDonald constantly was working out of trouble as his pitch count climbed. After getting two outs in the sixth, McDonald was pulled in favor of Tony Watson, who pitched two scoreless innings and eased the pressure on the bullpen. Closer Joel Hanrahan was unavailable because he had appeared in the past three games..
"I was just pounding fastballs away, trying to stay low in the zone and get ahead early," Watson said.
Watson came in to face Bourn, the leadoff batter, and got him to line out. He quickly retired Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee -- the heart of the order for the Astros -- in the seventh and got a grounder and strikeout in the eighth.
"Good location of his fastball, both sides, the changeup was excellent today," Hurdle said of Watson. "The breaking ball also came into play a little bit."
Jose Veras came on in the ninth in place of Hanrahan, but got into immediate trouble, allowing two hits and a run. With the tying run on second and Lee at the plate, Veras induced a hard groundball to defensive replacement Brandon Wood at third. After initially bobbling the ball, Wood recovered in time to throw Lee out to end the game.
"Heck of a play by Brandon to stay with that ball," Hurdle said. "Not to panic, knowing the runner, just to go get it and get it over there."
The defense also helped in the third, saving a run when Tabata and Ronny Cedeno relayed the ball to Dusty Brown and nailed Pence at the plate after Lee's double off the wall in left.
The Pirates will start a three-game interleague road series tonight against the Cleveland Indians.