Bucs unable to match homer-happy Houston

Bucs unable to match homer-happy Houston

HOUSTON -- There were times on Wednesday when the Astros made it look like batting practice. Balls were being drilled off the Minute Maid Park facade or dropping into the left-field seats, seemingly with ease.

But the Astros' home run barrage wasn't a pregame showcase. It came at the expense of Pittsburgh pitching, which surrendered a season-high four homers in a game for the third time this season.

That was enough not only to keep Pittsburgh winless in five games at Minute Maid Park this season, but the 6-3 loss in front of 23,123 also marked the Pirates' 20th loss in their last 22 road games.

"It's just unbelievable. It really is," Ryan Church said of the accumulating road defeats. "I guess, we've got to pretend everywhere is PNC [Park]."

Pirates starter Daniel McCutchen was the ungrateful recipient of Houston's first three homers, the first two of which gave the Astros an early three-run advantage. McCutchen's high fastball to Jeff Keppinger in the first was crushed for a solo shot. Two innings later, it was a changeup that crept back over the middle of the plate that Carlos Lee turned on for a two-run blast.

That homer came after McCutchen lost a seven-pitch battle to Lance Berkman and surrendered a two-out walk.

"He had trouble getting that last out," manager John Russell said. "He battled, but made a few mistakes that really hurt him."

McCutchen lasted only two more innings, though not before Berkman's solo shot in the fifth pushed the Astros back in front. It negated the three-run inning the Pirates' offense had posted just one inning earlier.

"They could have been better pitches," McCutchen said of the three that landed over the wall. "I threw some good curveballs, some good sliders. My arm felt strong. My fastball command wasn't as good as I'd like it to be."

The trio of home runs pushed McCutchen's total surrendered to 10 in 28 1/3 innings with this year. He allowed only six in eight more innings as a September callup last year. These three were hit by an Astros team that entered the night having hit only 50 homers all season, the fewest among all Major League clubs.

"They always say they come in bunches," said Berkman, who has now homered in each of the first two games of the series. "Heck, we'll take them. We've had a dearth of them, if you will, to this point in the season."

McCutchen's work will now continue in Triple-A Indianapolis, after the right-hander was optioned back to the Minors after Wednesday's game. The roster move was made to clear a space for reliever Sean Gallagher, who is scheduled to join the club on Thursday. The move was also expected, given that Zach Duke is scheduled to come off the disabled list and reclaim his rotation spot after the All-Star break.

"Hopefully he'll continue to progress," Russell said of McCutchen. "He's throwing the ball pretty decent up here. He's just got to find a way to limit those mistakes."

In his three spot starts for Duke, McCutchen allowed nine earned runs in 15 1/3 innings. It has been an improvement over the right-hander's first stint with the club back in April, but lapses in command continue to plague him.

"It's not hard to do better than what I did last time," said McCutchen, who lost his rotation spot in April after amassing a 14.73 ERA in three starts. "My body feels a lot better. My stuff felt better tonight. I'll try to build off it."

Astros starter Brian Moehler held the Pirates scoreless through three innings, but when he left with a strained right groin, Pittsburgh took immediate advantage. Gustavo Chacin entered in relief and the Pirates scored three times in the left-hander's one inning to tie the game at 3.

A double by Garrett Jones, who has now hit safely in 10 of his 11 career games against Houston, started the fourth. After Pedro Alvarez drew the first of his two walks, Ryan Doumit drove Jones home with a single to right. Ryan Church followed with a two-run double into the gap in left-center.

Pittsburgh didn't look like it was finished either, as Ronny Cedeno then drove a ball into deep center. Thinking that center fielder Michael Bourn wouldn't reach it in time, Church took a few steps toward third, poised to score when the ball dropped.

Bourn, however, tracked the ball on a dead sprint and made a shoestring catch.

"I put my head down to run to it and hopefully I was taking a right angle on it," Bourn said. "From there I looked up and was able to make a snag. I was going to give it a great effort."

"The amount of ground that he eats up to get those balls is really amazing," Houston manager Brad Mills added.

Not only did it seal the first out of the frame, but Church had to retreat back to second and stay there.

"I got stuck in no man's land, and once you hesitate, you have no chance," Church said. "They limited the damage after that."

Said Russell of the catch: "It changed the game."

Chacin then recorded two straight outs to prevent any more damage.

In all, the Pirates went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on. Pittsburgh couldn't capitalize on leadoff doubles in the third and eighth, and the club had one last chance to answer all the Astros home runs, too, when Alvarez came up as the potential tying run with a pair on and two out in the ninth. He went down swinging on three pitches.

"We hit the ball really hard tonight," Russell said. "It's unfortunate. I thought we swung the bats really well, just couldn't get anything out of it."

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