HOUSTON -- It was late Sunday afternoon in Denver, right after the Pirates had been flushed away in four by the Colorado Rockies, that Doug Mientkiewicz spoke in an otherwise silent clubhouse.
"Look, we got our butts kicked," he said at the time. "But it's how you respond to situations like this that test what you're made of. We've got to play better, period."
So, they did, with a kick or two of their own.
And, as has happened so often, it was Mientkiewicz kicking harder than most in an 8-7 victory that brought a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros yesterday at Minute Maid Park: He matched a career high with four hits, reached base all five times up, doubled in one run and singled in the go-ahead run.
For good measure, he also took out Houston second baseman Kazuo Matsui with a hard slide that allowed the eighth run to cross.
"Doug really sparked us," manager John Russell said. "And he's done that a lot."
- Game: Pirates vs. San Diego Padres, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Yoslan Herrera (0-1, 19.50) vs. RHP Clay Hensley (1-0, 0.00).
- Key matchup: Everyone vs. the top two in San Diego's order: Leadoff man Scott Hairston is batting .413 in July, and rookie Edgar Gonzalez .333.
- Of note: The last-place Padres are the anti-Pirates when it comes to comebacks. They had been 0-53 when trailing after eight innings before finally pulling one out Tuesday. The Pirates are 5-49 and have 24 comeback victories.
The sweep brought the Pirates' first three-game winning streak since they won six in a row May 6-12 and, just as important, it washed away the sting of Denver.
"As bad as we did in Colorado, to turn around and take these three was important," Mientkiewicz said.
So was the sweep, perhaps, only the third all year and the first since taking three from the San Francisco Giants May 6-8.
"Early in the year, it seemed like we'd win two and then just kind of throw our hats out there for the third one," Mientkiewicz said. "Today, I thought we did a good job of jumping on the guy early, and we didn't stop."
The Pirates chased Houston's Brian Moehler with six runs through 2 1/3 innings, but they hardly could afford to stop because Ian Snell fared no better: He lasted three innings for his shortest start in a season full of those, charged with five runs on six hits and three walks.
Again, Snell's stuff was fine, as seen through six strikeouts and 95-mph heat. But the control took a step backward, reflected in the abysmal pitch count of 85.
"He just didn't have the command," Russell said.
Snell was harder on himself than usual.
"I let the game speed up on me," he said. "I wasn't really focused. I was out there, just trying to throw the ball wherever."
Snell went so far as to raise -- on his own -- the possibility of a demotion to the minors, even though he is out of options.
"Sometimes, I don't even feel like I deserve to be up here, which is funny because I don't let stuff bother me. But that's how I feel sometimes. Sometimes, I feel like I let these guys down."
The Pirates bolted to a 4-0 lead in the first, including Jason Bay's 21st home run, a two-run shot to left field that matched his home run total for all of 2007. It also tied Bill Mazeroski for eighth on the franchise's all-time list.
Snell gave three runs right back in the bottom half, but he still exited with a 6-5 lead. T.J. Beam gave up another in the fourth, and that 6-6 tie would hold until the Pirates' seventh.
The reason for that was superb relief from Franquelis Osoria and John Grabow.
Osoria, the most beleaguered of the Pirates' bullpen, reversed roles and put out the fire rather than igniting one with perfect fifth and sixth innings.
"My sinker is back," he said.
He has made three consecutive scoreless appearances after getting shelled for weeks.
In the seventh, the Pirates pecked away at Geoff Geary, getting singles by Ryan Doumit and Xavier Nady, plus a walk to Adam LaRoche to load the bases with one out for Mientkiewicz. He ripped his fourth hit through the right side for one run.
So much for that 1-for-13 spell.
"Don't ask me how I did that," Mientkiewicz said. "Coming from Colorado, I felt terrible."
He did get some advice from hitting coach Don Long over the weekend about keeping his weight back.
"Dumb as I am, it took me three days to figure it out."
Jason Michaels pinch-hit next, and it looked as if he would hit into a 6-4-3 double play, but Mientkiewicz's slide into Matsui -- he took out his legs with enough force that Houston's trainer had to come out briefly -- allowed Nady's touching home to count, and it was 8-6.
Tyler Yates gave up one in the bottom half, but Grabow bailed him out by stranding two in fine fashion, getting lazy flyouts from Houston's finest, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee.
Grabow put up a zero in the eighth, and Damaso Marte finished it off for his fifth save.
The Pirates' 14-hit output included two each for Sanchez, whose series included eight hits and seven RBIs; Nady, whose hitting streak is at 12; and LaRoche, who is going so well that even his outs are rockets.
With that, the Pirates climbed past Houston out of last place, and that seemed to rankle Berkman, who called the Astros a "bad team" and apparently, belittled their opponent in the process.
"What can you say?" Berkman said. "We were just swept by the Pirates when we were trying to get back to respectability."
The Pirates face another last-place team, the San Diego Padres, tonight at PNC Park.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published July 24, 2008 4:00 AM