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Lincoln struggles vs. hometown Astros

Lincoln struggles vs. hometown Astros

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HOUSTON -- Brad Lincoln already had a scrapbook worth of Minute Maid Park memories. And that was before he took the mound to face the Astros on Tuesday night.

It was here that, as an 18-year-old freshman, Lincoln made his University of Houston debut by holding his own against a fourth-ranked University of Texas team in 2004. Lincoln struck out four in as many innings that day.

It was on that same mound and same date a year later that Lincoln made a scoreless relief appearance and went 3-for-5 hitting cleanup in a game against nationally-ranked Baylor.

And it was from these Minute Maid seats -- the same ones where dozens of family members and friends made their presence known on Tuesday -- that Lincoln had watched so many of his favorite Astros play.

Tuesday will surely be another memory for Lincoln, as it was the right-hander's first chance to pitch in his hometown since making his Major League debut less than a month ago. However, Lincoln's performance fell too flat to give the homecoming any storybook ending. Some early command issues sunk the righty into a hole, one in which the Pirates never climbed out of as they fell, 6-2, in front of 23,210 fans.

"You always want to do well in front of family and friends," Lincoln said. "I wouldn't say I was trying too hard out there, I was just kind of upset that that's the way it ended up. I couldn't ever get in a groove."

Ironically enough, it was a fellow University of Houston product, Michael Bourn, who started both rallies against Lincoln. Lincoln's inability to field Bourn's grounder up the middle to lead off the first keyed Houston's early two-run frame.

Bourn stole second and then scored on two productive Houston outs. Carlos Lee followed by crushing a 1-1 fastball over the center-field wall.

"I should have been more of an athlete there and fielded that ball," Lincoln said. "If I would have fielded that ball, we would have gotten out of that inning clean."

By the time the third was over, the Astros had pushed that lead to five. An RBI double by Jeff Keppinger and Lance Berkman's two-run blast, just inches inside the left-field foul pole, did that damage. Lincoln finished the outing with two scoreless innings, but even so, he never appeared completely settled in.

From the start, Lincoln struggled with his fastball command. That, in turn, compromised the right-hander's ability to use his secondary pitches with much success. He fell behind 10 of the 23 batters he faced, and lacked that aggressiveness that had been showcased in his stellar performance against the Cubs last week.

After striking out seven in that last start, Lincoln had none in this one.

"Not that he wasn't trying to," manager John Russell said of Lincoln's inability to pound the strike zone. "He just couldn't hit his spots."

Could the adrenaline of pitching in Houston for the first time have played a part in Lincoln's inability to ever get settled in? Russell didn't dismiss the possibility.

"He wanted to do really well," Russell said. "Sometimes it's another piece to the growing pains and development. He's got to be able to understand the situation, maintain his composure and throw the ball the way he's capable of."

Still, Lincoln wouldn't cite that as the primary issue.

"I wasn't really that emotional," he said. "I had some butterflies in the first inning, but it was just a case where I couldn't get comfortable out there."

After enjoying an eight-run output in their last game, the Pirates' offense hardly stirred against Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez, who has now won each of his last three starts against Pittsburgh.

"He's been able to get some confidence as he goes along," Houston manager Brad Mills said said of Rodriguez, who now has a 0.90 ERA in his last three starts. "He's put it all together, and that's what we're looking for."

Rodriguez went seven innings deep and kept the Pirates hitless in six of those frames, despite not being particularly overpowering.

"It seemed like he was nibbling both sides, but when he was getting into hitter's counts, he got real aggressive," second baseman Neil Walker said. "Speaking personally, I missed a couple fastballs that I'd like to get back. I think a couple other guys would say the same."

The only inning where the Pirates stirred up some noise was the fourth, which began with four of the first five hitters connecting for singles. Ryan Doumit's hit drove home Andrew McCutchen to push across the team's first run.

But any chance to narrow the four-run deficit even more evaporated when Bobby Crosby popped out to the catcher and Lincoln went down swinging on three pitches to end the frame.

"That inning, if we come up with that one hit, it puts us right back in the middle of it," Russell said. "We just didn't get it."

Walker doubled and scored in the eighth to give Pittsburgh one more run, but that would hardly be enough to keep the Pirates from falling to 2-19 in their last 21 games away from home.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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