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Pirates' late-season tailspin persists

| Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, 4:28 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke waits for a new ball after giving up a three-run home run to Houston's Brett Wallace Monday September 3, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Michael McKenry strikes out to end the seveth inning Monday September 3, 2012 against the Houston Astros at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talks to home plate umpire Wally Bell Monday, September 3, 2012, against the Houston Astros at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke delivers during the second inning Monday September 3, 2012 against the Houston Astros at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher Kyle McPherson will start against the Brewers on Wednesday. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Houston's Brett Wallace (center) is greeted by Tyler Greene and Jose Altuve after hitting a three-run home run off Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke Monday September 3, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he has long had a question for lowly teams far removed from postseason consideration that somehow manage to spoil the chances of those who are still in it: Why now?

“That's really what it comes down to sometimes,” Hurdle said before the Pirates played the Houston Astros, who own the worst record in Major League Baseball by a substantial margin, a team that came into PNC Park on Monday having lost an astounding 50 of its last 59 games. “Why now do you feel like you should beat somebody you shouldn't beat?”

It was also a relevant question after the game, after a 5-1 Astros' victory witnessed by a grouchy crowd of 20,005. For the Pirates, the loss happened at a particularly bad time. After dropping three straight in Milwaukee, the club was expecting to return home and heal against a lesser opponent and perhaps start a stretch of consistent play worthy of a playoff contender.

This was hardly a fatal blow to the Pirates, who began the day just 1½ games out of the second wild-card spot and have most of September to make some noise. Still, it was an ugly, dispiriting loss to the worst team in the game and to a pitcher who had not won in more than four years.

His name is Edgar Gonzalez, and if it fails to ring a bell it did not resonate much with the Pirates, either. The 29-year-old right-hander last won April 24, 2008, while pitching for Arizona. In a career that spanned three prior clubs in eight big league seasons, Gonzalez was 14-25 with a 5.90 ERA.

But Hurdle was again prescient, labeling Gonzalez a “hungry” pitcher who was thrilled to be back in the majors and wants to stay. After Gonzalez worked 5 13 innings, limiting to the Pirates to five hits — three by Garrett Jones — and one run while striking out five and walking one, Hurdle repeated his assessment, but he added that the Pirates helped.

“He wasn't in too much trouble, so he didn't have to try to create anything out there,” Hurdle said. “He mixed his pitches. Threw the slider, threw the changeup on occasion, spotted the fastball. We were not able to connect any at-bats together.”

“He was mixing his pitches, up and down, using all of his pitches,” said center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who went 0 for 4. “For him to have a good game, that's what he has to do. Be able to locate ‘em, and that's what he did.”

Trailing 5-1 in the sixth, the Pirates had a chance to come back after Jones' single put runners on first and second with one out. Mickey Storey relieved. He struck out Gaby Sanchez on three pitches and got Pedro Alvarez to ground out.

In his first start of the season, Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke, who struck out six in five innings, escaped a bases-loaded jam with minimal damage in the first and kept his team close until Brent Wallace belted a three-run homer to make it 5-0 in the fifth.

“A hanging curveball to Wallace,” Locke said. “He'd hit two fastballs for singles, and I had to do something a little different. But that one pitch is the only thing that really stands out to me. Everything else felt pretty good.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

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