HOUSTON -- The ace of the first half must be in a hole. Nobody has seen him since the All-Star break.
James McDonald pitched his fourth forgettable outing in a row, walking a career-high seven in a 9-5 loss Sunday to the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
McDonald, who performed so well in the first half of the season that he earned the honor of pitching the first game after the break, has an 8.71 ERA since the All-Star Game.
"I think he's putting added pressure on himself," catcher Michael McKenry said. "He started the first game after the break. He just needs to take it back two notches and say, 'OK, I'm fine. I've got great stuff.' He's got No. 1-caliber stuff, if not better. You can't be good all the time."
In the loss Sunday, McDonald surrendered five earned runs on six hits in five innings. In the first three months of the season, McDonald never allowed more than three walks in a game. In July, he has walked more than three batters in four of six outings.
His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) since the All-Star break is 2.27. Before the break, his ERA was 2.37 and his WHIP was 0.97.
"I can't put my foot on it yet," McDonald said. "If I could, I would have pitched better."
McDonald has not had the same command that allowed him to dominate opposing hitters until early this month, a result, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, of some inconsistencies in his delivery. He said skipping one of McDonald's starts is an option the team will discuss, but he seemed more inclined to let his young starter pitch through his issues.
Too many people, Hurdle said, "want to throw a kid a lifesaver every time he runs into turbulence."
"We're trying to grow up men here."
Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage will talk with McDonald today in Chicago to try to address the issues that have hindered his pitching in his past four starts.
"Oh, he'll be fine," McKenry said.
McDonald was just as confident his struggles are merely temporary.
"It's my turn to get back in the groove," he said. "When I get back situated, we'll be fine."
He left the game with the Astros leading, 5-2, a lead that grew when Kevin Correia made his first relief appearance this season and only his fourth since 2008.
Correia struggled, allowing four earned runs on five hits in two innings as the Astros ran away with the game.
The Astros (35-68) snapped a 12-game losing streak, scoring runs in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings to surge ahead of the Pirates (58-43). The loss spoiled the Pirates' bid for their first road sweep of the season and first four-game sweep in Houston since 1983.
Houston starter Lucas Harrell earned the win, allowing two earned runs on five hits in 52/3 innings.
The Pirates had a good chance to claw back in the game in the sixth when they loaded the bases with two outs, trailing by three. But Houston reliever Fernando Rodriguez got pinch-hitter Andrew McCutchen to pop out to shallow right field to keep the Pirates at bay.
The Astros took advantage of a couple of defensive miscues to build their big lead.
J.D. Martinez led off the fifth with a triple that should have been a single. But, before Garrett Jones could dive to try to catch the ball, he stumbled and fell to the ground. The ball rolled past Jones, allowing Martinez to reach third.
He scored when Scott Moore singled to right on the next play.
In the third, Marwin Gonzalez hit a grounder that deflected off Jordy Mercer's glove and into the outfield. Mercer slowly trotted to pick up the ball, and the delay allowed Gonzalez to take second for a double.
The hit also let Jose Altuve move from first to third, and he scored one batter later when Martinez hit a sacrifice to left field as the Astros grabbed a 1-0 lead.
Jones gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead in the fourth with a mammoth home run. He smacked a 94-mph fastball from Harrell, sending it to about the 15th row in the upper deck in Minute Maid Park's right-field seats for his 16th homer of the season.
The home run, which traveled an estimated distance of 423 feet, scored Neil Walker.
• Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs.
• When: 8:05 p.m.
• Where: Wrigley Field, Chicago.
• TV, radio: Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).homepage - breaking - pirates
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 29, 2012 9:45 PM