HOUSTON -- Lately, relievers have made it tough for the Pirates to find wins.
Carlos Lee hit a three-run home run in the seventh inning, and the Pirates bullpen blew a late lead in a 7-4 loss to the Astros Monday at Minute Maid Park.
The Pirates bullpen allowed five runs in three innings Monday night and has allowed 12 runs in the past five games -- twice blowing late leads. Earlier in the season, Pirates relievers had collaborated multiple times to string together scoreless streaks that lasted more than 10 innings.
"We just haven't been as efficient as we were earlier," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It comes down to location."
In the seventh inning, the difference was the location of a couple pitches.
Lee swung at an inside fastball, pulling the ball and burying it into the left-field seats to break a 3-3 tie.
"I was pitching way inside -- like three or four balls inside the plate," Jose Veras said. "But he made good contact with it -- a good swing. I can't do anything about it."
Game: Pirates at Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
TV, radio:Root Sports, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Charlie Morton (9-7, 3.62) vs. RHP Henry Sosa (1-2, 5.09).
Key matchup: Morton vs. Clint Barmes, who is 3 of 8 with a double and two RBIs against Morton this season.
Hidden stat: Sosa, acquired in a trade with San Francisco, is making his fifth career appearance and first against the Pirates.
The Astros tied the score earlier that inning as a result of another pitcher missing his location.
Leading 3-2 with one out, Jason Grilli threw a breaking ball that broke too much -- hitting Jordan Schafer on the top of the foot. From there, things unraveled. Jose Altuve doubled to left field, putting two on with one out and chasing Grilli from the game.
Schafer scored when J.D. Martinez hit into a fielder's choice.
Grilli (1-1) took the loss, allowing two earned runs in 11/3 innings.
The Pirates scored one run in the ninth and had the tying-run at the plate with two outs. But Mark Melancon earned his 15th save of the season by striking out Jose Tabata.
The Astros (45-90) tallied 13 hits, compared to five for the Pirates (62-72).
Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez (10-9) struck out a career high 13 batters to earn the win. He allowed three earned runs on four hits and was exceptional save for one troublesome inning.
"He was getting ahead by us chasing a lot of his offspeed," Andrew McCutchen said. "It's a different ballgame if we go out and we don't swing at those pitches. The majority of our swing-and-misses were probably on balls."
It was the second time this season Rodriguez set -- or matched -- a career high for strikeouts against the Pirates. He tied a then-career high by striking out 11 Pirates July 17.
His 13 strikeouts were also the most by an Astros pitcher since Aug. 14, 2010, when Bud Norris struck out 14 against, ironically, the Pirates.
Ross Ohlendorf struck out six and allowed two earned runs in five innings but was denied his first win since July 2, 2010.
He missed nearly five months this season while on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and struggled last week in his first start since April, allowing seven runs -- four earned -- on 11 hits in five innings.
"I saw some incremental improvement," Hurdle said. "There were more strikes thrown -- more attempts at working the ball in."
He was more effective Monday, relying heavily on his low-90s fastball that he spread around the strike zone.
"The most important thing, probably for every pitcher but definitely for me, is being able to command my fastball, throwing it to both sides of the plate for strikes," Ohlendorf said. "I felt like as the game went on, I really threw it into lefties well."
Josh Harrison had the Pirates first hit of the night -- a double to the alley in left field to lead off the fourth inning. From there, Rodriguez continued to struggle in the fourth.
After pitching two balls to McCutchen, he offered a fastball over the outer half of the plate that McCutchen drove over the right-field wall, giving the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
He offered up back-to-back doubles to Neil Walker and Ryan Doumit, then walked Matt Diaz as the Pirates grabbed a 3-0 lead with runners on first and second with no outs.
The Astros got one run back in the bottom half of the inning.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published August 30, 2011 4:00 AM