Pirates turn to Locke in opener with Astros

Struggling to gain ground in the playoff race, a visit from the Houston Astros couldn't come at a better time for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With Jeff Locke set to make his first start of the season, the Pirates hope to get right on Monday afternoon in the first of three straight against the last- place Astros.

Pittsburgh welcomes Houston to PNC Park after getting swept in three games by another NL Central rival, the Milwaukee Brewers. The Pirates dropped a 12-8 decision on Sunday despite homers from Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones.

That's because starter James McDonald had a rough outing, yielding eight runs -- seven earned -- on six hits, four homers and a walk over 2 2/3 innings.

The Pirates lost for the ninth time in 12 games, but are still 1 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot.

Pittsburgh hopes that Locke can carry over a successful season at Triple-A into the majors in his first career outing against the Astros. The 24-year-old went 10-5 with a 2.48 earned run average with Indianapolis this year, going 3-0 with a 0.58 ERA in his last five outings.

After going 0-3 with a 6.48 ERA in four starts with the Pirates last season, Locke made two relief appearances earlier this season with Pittsburgh and gave up just one hit over 4 1/3 innings.

"He's made a lot of progress," manager Clint Hurdle said of Locke on Pittsburgh's website. "His ability to locate, to mix speeds, the command -- all of it. The next step is to check it out here."

Locke is taking the rotation spot of the released Erik Bedard and hopes to stick in the starting five. A good outing against Houston would do that and he faces an Astros club that has lost seven of eight and 14 of its last 16.

Houston, 40 1/2 games out of first place, failed to hold a three-run lead on Sunday versus the Cincinnati Reds, giving up five runs in the eighth to suffer a 5-3 setback.

"They put together some good at-bats and got some big hits and were just able to pull ahead," said the Astros' Tyler Greene, who hit a solo homer as one of his two hits.

Edgar Gonzalez is slated to make his season debut for the Astros today in what will be his first start since Sept. 27, 2009 while with the Oakland Athletics.

The 29-year-old righty went 6-5 with a 3.84 ERA in 23 games (15 starts) this season across three different Triple-A clubs. He made just one appearance in the majors last season, a relief outing with the Colorado Rockies.

A veteran of 107 MLB games and 41 starts, Gonzalez is 1-1 with a 1.86 ERA in three lifetime meetings with the Pirates, including one start.

The Pirates have won nine of 11 versus the Astros this season, including six of seven at home.