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Bucs' offense nonexistent in finale

Bucs' offense nonexistent in finale

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HOUSTON -- The Pirates have now lost 35 of their first 46 road games this season, though none have been in quite as quiet an offensive fashion as Thursday's 2-0 defeat to the Astros.

Pittsburgh had no answer for Houston ace Roy Oswalt in the series finale at Minute Maid Park, and consequently, it was unable to salvage the finale of the three-game set. The Astros, carried by Lance Berkman's bat all series, are now 6-0 this season against the Pirates, who have now been swept in six of their past seven road series.

Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf (1-7) didn't pitch all that poorly in his seven-inning start, but it fell short of matching Oswalt's dominance. Little did the Pirates know after Neil Walker laced a two-out single to right in the first that the club would be held hitless through the next 8 1/3 innings.

Yes, Oswalt joined Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto as the second starter to toss a one-hit complete game against Pittsburgh this season. And the right-hander did so efficiently, needing just 117 pitches.

"He had everything working," manager John Russell said. "He was tough. Everything he did, he did what he wanted to do."

"His fastball was exploding out of his hand," added first baseman Garrett Jones. "It was just getting on guys. He kept us off balance, hit his spots. He just attacked the zone. It seemed like he was a lot better than the last time we faced him."

When the Pirates faced Oswalt back on April 23, the right-hander allowed two earned runs on four hits in seven innings. And oddly enough, he said he didn't feel as comfortable early on Thursday as it appeared to everyone else.

"In the first few innings, I was missing some spots, and I was nervous about not being able to throw where I want to," Oswalt said. "At least, I was throwing them down and not up."

But when Oswalt settled in, he showcased a particularly devastating curveball to complement his fastball. That curveball notched three of the right-hander's eight strikeouts, all of which came after the third inning.

Oswalt's shutout was his first since he blanked the Pirates back on Sept. 11, 2008.

"A special outing by Roy," Houston manager Brad Mills said. "He had outstanding stuff the whole time. Coming out of the 'pen, he had great stuff; the whole game, he had great stuff. He wanted to go back out there for the ninth, and it was really not a tough decision to send him back out."

While Oswalt took care of everything on the pitching end, Berkman lifted Houston's offense single-handedly. Already with two homers in the first two games of the series, Berkman doubled that total in his first two at-bats on Thursday.

Berkman took Ohlendorf deep in the first with a solo shot into the left-field Crawford Boxes to end an eight-pitch battle. The next pitch Berkman saw from Ohlendorf -- this one coming in the fourth -- sailed over the wall in left.

"They were OK pitches," Ohlendorf said, hesitant to label either fastball a mistake. "He just did a good job hitting them."

The pair of solo homers gave Berkman five in his past four games. He finished the series 5-for-10 and reached base eight times.

"He killed us," Russell said. "He plays this ballpark very well. I've seen him do that countless times -- he takes that ball and shoots it over the wall."

Berkman had entered the series having gone deep only eight times in his first 68 games, though that power drought was certain to end sometime soon given his track record.

"Obviously, when you are getting good results, you are feeling confident," Berkman said. "There's a little more bounce in your step, and you have a little more optimistic outlook on your at-bats."

Outside of Berkman's two blasts, Ohlendorf otherwise limited the Astros to just five other hits. Though the outcome obviously wasn't desirable, this did mark a third consecutive strong showing from the right-hander.

Not only has Ohlendorf allowed only two earned runs during that span (20 innings), but he's done so with his best fastball command of the season and with increased velocity.

"I think he's found his niche again," Russell said. "He's much more compact. He's using his lower half much better, driving the ball down. I think he's on track now."

Ohlendorf compared the stretch to the one he ended the 2009 season on. He closed out last year with a 2.77 ERA in 10 starts and limited opponents to a .220 batting average during that span. He also pitched at least six innings in each of those games.

Now, after being unable to go six innings deep in three of his first four starts this year, Ohlendorf has reached that benchmark in eight of his past nine outings.

"I feel really good about how I'm throwing," Ohlendorf said. "I just need to keep it going."

Despite continued personal steps forward for Ohlendorf, Pittsburgh pitchers allowed eight home runs in the three-game series, and those long balls accounted for 10 of Houston's 14 runs. The Pirates, on the other hand, have only eight home runs as a team since June 16.

The Bucs entered the series with a chance to climb over the Astros in the National League Central with a sweep. Now, a 4 1/2-game gap separates the two.

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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