Four of the first eight Pirates hitters struck out against Astros starter Felipe Paulino before he was forced to leave the game with a with a strained right groin in the second frame, but the pitching change did little to help the Pirates luck at the plate, as they fell, 6-4, in Houston.
Pittsburgh rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the seventh inning to tie the game, but Miguel Tejada's RBI single in the bottom of the frame put Houston ahead for good. Led by Russ Ortiz, Houston's bullpen scattered nine hits over 7 1/3 innings.
"They did what they needed to do," Nyjer Morgan said. "It's just one of those things where you have to keep battling and going out there and not have a letdown."
The Pirates fell victim to three double plays in the game, two of which halted scoring chances.
With the bases loaded in the seventh and a chance to take the lead following Morgan's single that had tied the game at 3, Adam LaRoche hit a ground ball to first baseman Lance Berkman, who fired home to Humberto Quintero for the first out of an inning-ending 3-2-3 twin-killing.
In the fifth, Ian Snell and Andrew McCutchen reached base on back-to-back infield singles with one out. Morgan then hit a low line drive to third base that was snagged out of the air by Geoff Blum, who was able to double off Snell at second.
The Pirates couldn't support Snell with runs in the first six innings, but Morgan's run scoring single in the seventh got his pitcher off the hook for a loss. Morgan would also add another RBI with a sacrifice fly in the ninth that pulled the Pirates to within 6-4.
"It's very frustrating to not be able to come through for him," Morgan said of Snell.
The Pirates starting pitcher was impressive over six innings, allowing three runs on eight hits and striking out three. He is winless in his past nine starts.
Reliever Steven Jackson came on for Snell in the bottom of the seventh and surrendered two hits, including Tejada's single, which was kept in the infield by shortstop Ramon Vazquez. But by the time Vazquez got to his feet, pinch-runner Matt Kata was headed home, coming all the way around from second.
"For the most part, I threw the pitches I wanted, they just found the holes and that's the way it goes sometimes," Jackson said.
The Astros would add two insurance runs in the eighth to make it 6-3.
Jason Jaramillo got the Pirates got on the board in the second against Paulino, lacing a double into the left-center-field gap, scoring Andy LaRoche, who was running on the pitch, from first base. Paulino exited the game two batters later after delivering a pitch to Snell.
That would be the last offense the Pirates would put together for some time. Ortiz wouldn't give up a run over the next 4 1/3 innings.
The Astros tied the game in the second off Snell with back-to-back two out hits by Blum and Jeff Keppinger. Blum doubled and scored on Keppinger's single up the middle, just beating the throw home from McCutchen.
Houston put runners on base in the each of the first three innings, but Snell pitched to his defense to help minimize the damage. The Astros grounded into traditional double plays in the first and the third innings and were victim of a strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play when Carlos Lee was caught stealing second after a fastball had struck out Berkman.
"His command was better," manager John Russell said of Snell. "He attacked the zone much better and was around the plate more and challenging hitters. When he does that, it sets up his offspeed pitches and gives him a chance."
Snell would give up an RBI double by Quintero in the fifth to give the Astros a 2-1 lead. Lee would add a run in the sixth with an RBI single that made it 3-1, but that's all the damage the Bucs right-hander allowed.
"Today the ball felt really good and really easy coming out of my hand," Snell said. "I wasn't walking anybody and getting into deep counts. Anytime you can throw like that it feels good, but anytime you can keep your team in it and give them a chance it feels a little better."
Jason Grodsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.