Hopeful that John Van Benschoten would show enough promise to assume the rotation spot left vacant when Tom Gorzelanny was optioned to Triple-A, the Pirates once again are left looking into a shallow pool of candidates following a 6-4 loss to the Astros at PNC Park on Wednesday night.
It was little secret that the start was a big one for Van Benschoten, who had been chased before the fifth inning in both of his starts earlier in the season. He lasted 4 2/3 innings in this outing, one that could be characterized as mediocre at best.
In his postgame press conference, Pittsburgh manager John Russell said that while Van Benschoten didn't shine, "he didn't pitch bad enough not to warrant [another start]."
"We'll talk about it," Russell added.
However, apparently management's discussion didn't take long, because less than one hour after the game ended, the Pirates announced that Van Benschoten had been optioned to Triple-A.
A corresponding roster move has not yet been announced, though it can be expected that the Pirates will add a bullpen arm to get them to the All-Star break. They will not need a fifth starter until that rotation spot comes up on July 21. Van Benschoten would be eligible to return to the club if it decides to give him another chance.
On Wednesday, Van Benschoten salvaged a respectable outing in a start that appeared it was going to be ending soon after it started. He recorded the first two outs of the game, but that would be the apex of the night.
The right-hander hit Lance Berkman before walking Carlos Lee. A poorly located first-pitch fastball to Geoff Blum then landed in the seats. There were three more hits and one additional run before the 35-pitch inning ended.
"I've got to come with some better stuff," said Van Benschoten, who still hasn't had a win as a starter since 2004. "It's back to the drawing board."
The trouble dissipated little for Van Benschoten, though the damage fortunately stopped. He struck out six, but matched that with six walks, including two to opposing starter Brian Moehler, who came into the game 0-for-18 this season.
With his fastball command suspect, Van Benschoten relied heavily on his offspeed pitches. Four of the first five innings ended with two runners stranded.
"It was almost fortunate getting out of some of those jams," Van Benschoten said. "I'm obviously disappointed. The amount of walks was unacceptable."
Russell pulled Van Benschoten after he walked Moehler in the fourth. Asked his impressions of how the right-hander pitched, Russell said little.
"OK," the manager answered. "Obviously that first inning wasn't a good inning, but he managed to put up zeros after that."
As Van Benschoten labored, his offense slowly chipped away at the deficit. Xavier Nady tripled and scored in the second, before back-to-back RBI singles by Ryan Doumit and Jason Bay in the third brought the Pirates within one.
Pittsburgh looked poised to take its first lead in the fifth. Jack Wilson doubled to lead off the inning, before Houston right fielder Hunter Pence came up just short on an attempt to make a diving catch on a ball hit by Nate McLouth. McLouth scampered to second with his third double of the night, while Wilson advanced to third.
Moehler's first pitch to Freddy Sanchez then skipped away from catcher Brad Ausmus, and Wilson broke for home. Wilson, who didn't slide, was called out on a bang-bang play, though replays indicated Wilson got his foot in just ahead of the tag.
Sanchez drove home McLouth soon after, but the opportunity to put across two runs went unfulfilled.
The tide turned in the seventh, when Houston benefited from some infield hits and a mental mistake by Pittsburgh catcher Doumit.
Michael Bourn began the inning with a swinging bunt. Adam LaRoche fielded the ball, but Bourn beat it out. Later in the inning, with one out and Bourn on second base, Doumit fielded another swinging bunt that stopped just a few feet in front of home plate.
Instead of taking what would have been a sure second out by throwing to first base, Doumit tried to get Bourn at third. The throw was off target, though Bourn likely would have beaten it regardless.
"I know better than that," Doumit said. "It was a stupid play, and it cost us. This one's on me. I made the wrong choice. I saw it and I reacted. It cost us."
As a result, no outs were recorded on the play.
"A ball like that, he's being aggressive," Russell said. "He thought he had a chance. It's hard to fault a guy for being aggressive and trying to do something."
A groundout, which would have ended the inning, followed and drove in the go-ahead run. Bucs reliever Tyler Yates then gave up an RBI double to give the Astros an insurance run.
"We thought things were really going our way, and then we give up two runs like that, and it took a little wind out of our sails," Russell said. "The game kind of slipped away in that one inning."
The Pittsburgh lineup recorded just one more hit -- LaRoche's one-out, ninth-inning single -- the rest of the night. With the loss, the Pirates were unable to seal their third home sweep of the season.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.