Astros find keys to Locke, defeat Pirates

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A bad call on the basepaths Monday and a hanging curve did in starter Jeff Locke as the Pirates bats were silenced by a journeyman starter and one of the worst bullpens in the major leagues.

Locke made his season debut with the Pirates and pitched well enough to give the team a chance to win.

But instead of fattening up their record by feasting on one of the worst teams in the league, the Pirates lost to the Houston Astros, 5-1, before a crowd of 20,055 at PNC Park and lost more ground in the in the wild-card race. The St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves -- the teams who currently occupy the wild-card spots -- won.

The Pirates (70-64) who have lost four games in a row and 10 of their past 13, sit 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, who, at the moment, hold the second wild-card berth.

"We're not worried about it, we know that we can turn this thing around," said outfielder-first baseman Garrett Jones when asked if he sensed some panic among his teammates that the season may be slipping away.

"We need to just go out there and keep playing. We need to keep playing our game, go out there and get back on track, and there are plenty of games left to do that. So, we just need to do it sooner than later, get back on the winning track.

"We can only take it one game at a time."

While it is true the Pirates have 28 games left and seemingly have the best schedule among the top NL wild-card contenders, they must beat the teams beneath them in the standings.

And the Astros (42-93) -- who entered Monday 52 games below .500 and 40 1/2 games out of first place -- most likely qualify as a team the Pirates should beat.

Edgar Gonzalez, called up from Class AAA Oklahoma City to make the start, had a 4-3 record with a 4.37 ERA in the minors this season, although he was 1-0 with an 0.69 ERA in two starts for Oklahoma City.

But the Astros picked him up from the Mexican League, where he had a 2.84 ERA for Monterrey in six starts. His season, however, began with Colorado Springs, the Class AAA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, the team that later waived him.

Overall, Gonzalez (1-0) has spent part of eight seasons in the majors. In 107 games before Monday, he amassed a 5.90 ERA while pitching for three teams. Nevertheless, he mowed down the Pirates over 51/3 innings.

Winning in the majors for the first time since April 24, 2008, Gonzalez held the Pirates to five hits -- three by Jones. He struck out five and, except for the sixth when he was lifted with two on and one out, was never threatened.

"He wasn't in too much trouble, so he didn't have to try and create anything out there," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "He mixed his pitches well, we were not able to connect any at-bats together. And, again, I just think it was a lot of pitches taken and we got down in counts.

"There is nothing you can do from the dugout to help that out. That has to be ownership in the batter's box, and we talked about it throughout the season. It seems to be a challenge for us. We work hard at practice to hit everything, and, then, in the games, I think we get too fine at times."

Hurdle added, "[Gonzalez] wasn't going to hold anything back, I told you he was hungry."

Jones, who also was robbed of ninth-inning hit by a diving play at first base, said Gonzalez was throwing good stuff and was tricky in the way he mixed his pitches.

"He wasn't really making too many mistakes," Jones said. "He was tough, he was mixing speeds well, he was hitting spots well and we had never faced him before, and that is always a tough thing to do. His fastball was a little sneaky and he, for the most part, kept the ball down and away from us."

As for Locke, he got into an immediate jam when the first three batters singled to load the bases. It looked like he might get out of it when Matt Downs grounded into what should have been a nearly routine double play as the ball bounced off Locke's glove and into the glove of second baseman Brock Holt.

But the runner on first, Justin Maxwell, was called safe, even though he clearly ran out of the basepath to avoid Holt's tag.

So, instead of ending the inning with a double play, the Pirates got one out and the Astros got a 1-0 lead.

"He said he was not out of the baseline but he made a bad call, that's what he did," Hurdle said of the umpire. "He made a bad call, he was out of the baseline."

Locke (0-1), who allowed five earned run in five innings, said "human error" is a part of the game and was far less disturbed by that call than he was by the curve he hung in the fifth that turned into a three-run Brett Wallace homer and a 5-0 Houston lead.

It was the seventh homer this season for Wallace, the Astros first baseman who finished 3 for 4.

"The one pitch, the hanging curve to Wallace," Locke said, when asked if he felt like he made any mistakes.

"He had two singles previously in the game, so I felt like I had to do something different there. I hung a curveball, and he hit it out. But, really, it just felt like that one pitch was the difference."


Paul Zeise: and Twitter @paulzeise. First Published September 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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