HOUSTON -- When this season is over, there are sure to be a number of games that could qualify as the low point.
A defeat against the 102-loss Astros on Friday night might well be the frontrunner.
The Pirates were outmatched in all facets of a game against baseball's worst team in a 7-1 loss at Minute Maid Park.
The offense was bewildered by a bullpen that has the second worst ERA in the major leagues. The pitching staff was pounded by a group of hitters that has the worst batting average in the National League.
Houston (49-102) hit three home runs while the Pirates (74-76) struck out 12 times to pick up their 12th loss in 14 games.
The top half of the third inning was emblematic of the Pirates' struggles because of how quickly it went from promising to disappointing.
Starling Marte led off the frame with a single to centerfield. When Clint Barmes tried to bunt him over, he ran into the ball -- making him out on batter's interference and preventing Marte from advancing to second. When Andrew McCutchen came to the plate, Marte was caught stealing on a pitch out. A few pitches later, McCutchen struck out looking.
The Pirates stranded seven baserunners.
Jeff Locke took the loss, allowing three earned runs on three hits in five innings. He struck out eight and walked three.
He was playing catch-up most of the game after a couple bad pitches in the first inning. With Brandon Barnes on first, he allowed two-out, full-count walk to Justin Maxwell. Four pitches later, the Astros had a 3-0 lead.
Jed Lowrie got under a 91-mph fastball that Locke left up in the zone, dropping it in the Crawford Boxes near the left-field foul pole. It was Lowrie's 16th home run of the season and the sixth that Locke has allowed in four starts this year.
James McDonald made his first relief appearance since July 29, 2010, when he was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It did not go very well.
He left the game after facing four batters, three of whom eventually scored, unable to get any of them out. He allowed a home run to Maxwell to lead off the sixth, walked Lowrie, served an RBI triple to Brett Wallace and walked J.D. Martinez. McDonald was taken out of the rotation last week after struggling for most of the second half.
The game featured a spectacular defensive play by Astros second baseman Jose Altuve in the sixth inning. With Marte on first, Barmes hit a grounder toward the middle of the infield. Altuve dove to his right to stop the ball and then flipped it behind his head to Lowrie, standing on second, to get Marte out.
Despite the play, the Pirates had a good offensive opportunity later in the inning. Barmes reached on the fielder's choice, and McCutchen followed with a single as the Pirates had two on with one out. After Garrett Jones flied out to centerfield, Gaby Sanchez drew a walk to load the bases and bring Pedro Alvarez to the plate.
Alvarez struck out on three pitches --all curveballs, low and outside -- to end the inning.
The Pirates eventually scored in the eighth inning when Garrett Jones hit a solo home run into the Astros' bullpen in right-centerfield, his 24th home run of the season.
Astros reliever Fernando Rodriguez -- making an early appearance for injured Houston starter Edgar Gonzalez -- breezed through the Pirates' lineup, allowing two hits and striking out four batters in 3 1/3 scoreless innings. He retired the final eight batters he faced on the night as the Astros held a 3-0 lead.
Gonzalez left the game with two outs in the second inning after sustaining a strained right hamstring. He retired the first five batters he faced before allowing a single to Alvarez and issuing a walk to Michael McKenry. The latter prompted Houston manager Tony DeFrancesco to the mound, and he pulled Gonzalez in favor of Rodriguez.
Gonzalez defeated the Pirates earlier this month in his first start of the season. The Astros signed him earlier this year after posting a 2.84 ERA in the Mexican League.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino.