HOUSTON -- The Pirates had insisted all this offense was no mirage, and they backed that up with a bang.
They trailed Houston by one entering the ninth inning, but Jason Bay tied it with a monster home run, Adam LaRoche followed with a two-run shot, and Freddy Sanchez topped all that with a three-run, inside-the-park job in what stunningly transformed into a 9-3 rout last night at Minute Maid Park.
That snuffed a five-game losing streak and marked a 24th comeback victory, the fifth when trailing after eight innings.
- Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-6, 4.10) vs. RHP Jack Cassel (1-0, 6.28).
- Key matchup: Everyone vs. the journeyman Cassel, 27, who will be recalled from Class AAA Round Rock for his 11th major league start. One of his two career wins came with six scoreless innings against the Pirates Sept. 27, 2007, while with San Diego.
- Of note: Houston has won eight in a row when the opponent starts a left-hander.
It also brought an explosive end to an offensive drought -- nine runs in those four losses in Colorado after the All-Star break -- unlike any other this summer.
"We've believed in our offense all year," LaRoche said. "But still, that felt good. Really good."
Houston had a 3-2 lead, and the Pirates looked as if they would have yet another soft fade, having stranded six runners in the sixth through eighth innings, 12 in all. On top of that, the Astros' formidable closer, Jose Valverde, 25 of 30 in saves, had taken the mound.
With one out, Bay stepped into the box with a plan: Stay aggressive with the strike-throwing Valverde and time his way into the pitch he wanted.
He swung under the first fastball, took one for a ball, fouled one back, took another for a ball, fouled another off solidly, then took a sinker.
Hitting coach Don Long liked what he saw from the dugout.
"Jason got more comfortable with each pitch," Long recalled. "Got just under the one. Fouled off the next one hard to the right side. Then, when he never came close to offering at that sinker, I knew he was seeing the ball well and thought he would hit it pretty hard."
He did: Valverde smoked the full-count fastball at 98 mph, but it went out even harder, as Bay crushed it into the arched facade high above left field for his 20th home run, his fourth hit of the evening and, most important, a 3-3 tie.
"He threw me some tough ones before that, and I was able to get one I could handle," Bay said.
Xavier Nady then lashed a single into left, and LaRoche drove a 96-mph fastball, up and over the outer corner, the other way for his 11th home run, and it was 5-3.
"When I'm not on, I have a tendency to try to pull that pitch," LaRoche said. "It's just a millisecond difference, but it's all the difference in the world."
LaRoche most definitely is on: His 2-for-4 night extended his tear to 25 for 59, a .429 clip.
A single by Jose Bautista, a walk by Jason Michaels and Jack Wilson's RBI single chased Valverde.
He blamed poor fastball command for his showing.
"It's not the first time, and it won't be the last," Valverde said. "But it's frustrating."
With two outs, Sanchez drove a Tim Byrdak slider off the angled fence in right-center, and the carom was violent enough that third base coach Tony Beasley waved Sanchez home even though the relay looked as if it would be in plenty of time. It zipped past catcher Brad Ausmus, though, and it was 9-3.
Sanchez had his second consecutive three-hit game, as well as four RBIs, and the home run was his sixth and the Pirates' first inside-the-park since Chris Duffy's June 8, 2007, at New York's Yankee Stadium.
The Pirates' first two runs also were generated by Sanchez: He singled in the third and scored by hustling on another aggressive Beasley wave on a Bay infield single. First baseman Lance Berkman noticed too late that Sanchez was sprinting home. In the fifth, Sanchez followed Nate McLouth's double with a single.
"I think I'm getting to where I want to be," Sanchez said. "I just wish it didn't take this long."
And how did he feel when he saw Beasley's wave?
"The legs were jiggling a little bit, but I made it."
The offense finished with 18 hits, seemingly swinging and swinging until something finally went right.
"It's a huge lift for us," manager John Russell said. "To come up with seven runs in the ninth off a closer like that, this is what the guys have been waiting for, I think."
Their impatience in that regard had shown earlier in the day.
On the flight from Denver to Houston Sunday night, Long went down the plane's aisle informing all players that there would be optional early batting practice the next afternoon. So, when he and Russell took to the field yesterday, they were pleasantly surprised when everyone showed up. Even the pitchers, who went to the outfield to shag flies.
Russell, in a rarity, did the pitching.
"It's a special group," he said beforehand. "They could get down about what happened this weekend, and it was pretty quiet on the plane coming here. But they're in great spirits. They want to get out of this."
Pitching helped in this one, too.
John Van Benschoten finally showed traces of what has made him an effective Class AAA pitcher, limiting Houston to three runs -- two earned -- and six hits over five innings. He did walk four and could have thrown more strikes than 50 of 92 but, compared to previous outings, this one looked ...
"OK," Russell said. "We'd like to see him over the plate more, but he did well when he did throw strikes."
Mostly through 10 groundouts.
Van Benschoten, lugging a 9.77 ERA into this one, surely will get another start.
"It definitely feels good, especially with how it ended," he said. "I feel like I had to prove I belong here and that I can throw strikes here and get people out. I still can do better."
Best pitching of the night, though, was by John Grabow.
With the Pirates down, 3-2, in the sixth, Sean Burnett made a mess by giving up a single and two walks around one out. But Grabow bailed him out by fanning Berkman and getting Carlos Lee to pop up.
"It's not ideal, facing two of the game's best hitters in that situation," he said. "But we've all seen what our offense can do if you give them a chance."
Even Wilson had a chance to breathe a sigh of relief: His hitless streak was 0 for 19 before that single in the ninth.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published July 22, 2008 4:00 AM