Clinging to slim playoff chances, Bucs open set with Astros

The Pittsburgh Pirates head to Minute Maid Park with their fleeting playoff hopes still in tact on Friday when they open a three-game weekend series with the Houston Astros.

The Pirates, who challenged for the National League's Central Division title for much of the season, have faded badly in the last several weeks and are now fourth in the division behind Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Pittsburgh is tied for sixth in the chase for the NL's two available wild card playoff spots and trails No. 2 St. Louis by 5 1/2 games.

For the Pirates, lefty Jeff Locke makes his fourth start of the season and the eighth of his career.

The 24-year-old was 0-3 in four starts with Pittsburgh in a brief stint last season and has appeared in five games in 2012 - starting three times.

He dropped his lone decision of the season on Sept. 3 against the Astros after allowing five runs on seven hits in five innings.

In two games since, he's pitched 10 1/3 innings and allowed 14 hits and seven hits.

After giving up no runs in his initial two appearances of the year on Aug. 9 and 14, he's surrendered 12 runs in 15 1/3 innings over three subsequent outings.

The Pirates are 0-5 in games he's pitched.

For the Astros, righty Edgar Gonzalez starts for the fourth time since his Astros debut earlier this month.

The 29-year-old made a single appearance with the Colorado Rockies in 2011 and was released this summer on June 19, the picked up by the Astros on Aug. 23.

He allowed two runs in 10 1/3 innings while winning his initial two starts on Sept. 3 and 9, then was ripped for five runs in four innings of a 12-6 loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 14.

The Sept. 3 game was against the Pirates and Locke and improved Gonzalez to 2-1 in four career meetings with Pittsburgh.

He's allowed a .236 opposition batting average in three games this season, 65 points below his career mark of .301.

On Thursday in Pittsburgh, Aramis Ramirez ripped a go-ahead RBI single to cap a four-run eighth inning and the Milwaukee Brewers completed a three- game sweep of the Pirates with a 9-7 victory at PNC Park.

Andrew McCutchen clubbed a three-run blast in the setback, the Pirates' 15th in their last 19 games to drop them below .500 (74-75) for the first time since they were 24-25 on May 29th.

"We want to win games," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We want to finish games off. Everybody wants to do well. Nobody wants to be a guy who doesn't perform."

In St. Louis, Carlos Beltran's two-run double in the sixth inning proved to be the difference, as the Cardinals beat the Astros, 5-4, to complete a three- game sweep.

Brandon Laird knocked in two runs for the Astros, who fell to 48-102 on the season. Justin Maxwell and Brandon Barnes added an RBI apiece.

Bud Norris (5-13) continued to struggle on the mound, giving up five runs on six hits while striking out seven and walking five over 5 1/3 innings. The right-hander saw his career-long losing streak reach 12 games.

"They're a good ballclub over there and we've got to get better," Norris said.

The Pirates won 11 of the first 14 games between the teams in 2012, including two of three in a series from Sept. 3-5 in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won last year's series, 11-7.