HOUSTON -- Zach Duke was chased early, the defense was ugly, and the offense mustered three hits off Roy Oswalt in sending the minimum number of men to the plate in the Pirates' 6-0 loss to the Houston Astros last night at Minute Maid Park.
And, if anyone broke a sweat in the process -- including Oswalt, with his fifth career shutout on a remarkably low 90 pitches -- it was not readily evident.
OK, here is more: The Pirates were swept in four here, have lost six in a row, 17 of 20 and, in what probably is the most telling number, 28 of 38 since Xavier Nady and Jason Bay were traded to devastate the lineup.
- Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (8-8, 3.74) vs. RHP Brad Thompson (5-2, 4.61).
- Key matchup: Albert Pujols is a .500 hitter vs. Maholm, 7 for 14 with a home run, two doubles and four walks.
- Of note: Maholm averages just 14.8 pitches per inning, seventh-lowest in the National League among starters qualified for the ERA title.
"Well, it's miserable," first baseman Adam LaRoche replied when asked about the team's general state. "We're lucky we've got a good group of guys and that we like being around each other. That makes it so we can live with it. And guys aren't necessarily going to quit or cash it in, even though from outside the clubhouse it might look that way at times. We've had some talks."
That included a team-wide meeting about two hours before the game Wednesday.
"A lot of what we're pushing is that it's not just about this year," LaRoche said.
He caught himself.
"Actually, it's not at all about this year. This year's over. When you're out of the playoffs, it's over. This is about, one, young guys earning a spot for next year and proving you deserve to be on this team. And, two, building for next year. Let's go into last couple weeks and finish strong and not just be soaking in misery all winter."
He paused again.
"I don't know if it's us. I don't know if we're beating ourselves right now, or if we just physically don't have the team right now that can compete. Who's to say?"
Duke was fresh off a shutout in San Francisco and had allowed two runs over the two previous starts, and he looked no less sharp for the first four innings of this one.
But two errors set the stage for Houston taking a 6-0 lead through five innings on four unearned runs ...
Reggie Abercrombie opened the third with a bunt single and took two extra bases when Duke's throw to first wound up in right field. One out later, Oswalt got him home with a deftly executed suicide squeeze.
"I take a lot of pride in my fielding, and that's tough to take," Duke said.
Hunter Pence opened the fifth with a single, and Jose Castillo bounced to third baseman Doug Mientkiewicz for what might have been a 5-4-3 double play, but Mientkiewicz's throw to second wound up, again, in right field. Three flared singles, a sacrifice fly and a double later, the Astros had that six-run edge and Duke was pulled for Marino Salas.
Duke finished with a line of six runs -- just two earned -- and six hits over 42/3 innings.
"He threw the ball OK," manager John Russell said. "We don't turn the double play and have to find a way to get out of it. We couldn't stop the bleeding. He had trouble getting outs after that, so it might have affected him a little bit."
"Not much at all," Duke said of the effect. "There were some broken bats and other things that happened after that. It all happened kind of quick."
Mientkiewicz committed another throwing error in the sixth.
"I stunk," Mientkiewicz said. "I ruined this for Zach. He was pitching his tail off. That first one, that's a throw you've got to make. I just blew it."
That was plenty enough for Oswalt, who now has pitched 32 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings and is the first in Major League Baseball this season to have back-to-back shutouts.
"He threw a great game," Russell said. "He just basically dominated the whole game."
Still, like so many opposing pitchers facing the Pirates these days, Oswalt could function on auto-pilot: Luis Rivas singled in the first, and no one else reached base until Mientkiewicz's one-out single in the eighth. Luis Cruz had the other hit in the ninth. All three baserunners were erased on double plays.
This trend of virtually forfeiting at-bats -- one that is in stark contrast to the patient, productive pre-trade Pirates -- has more than a few notches now: They had six hits Monday, four each of the next two nights, for a four-game series total of 17. Since the Nady-Bay trades, they have been held to three or fewer runs 22 times in 38 games, including four shutouts.
The 10-game road trip finished 3-7.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com .