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Pirates' McDonald's troubles continue in loss to Astros

| Sunday, July 29, 2012, 5:42 p.m.
The Pirates' James McDonald pitches to the Astros in the first inning Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez chases a foul ball during the second inning Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)
Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (27) beats the ball to second base as the Pirates' Neil Walker (18) fails to make the out in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)
The Pirates' Garrett Jones (46) catches a ball for an out against the Houston Astros in the fourth inning of a baseball game on Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)
The Houston Astros' Jordan Schafer (1) heads home after hitting a home run against the Pirates in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)
The Houston Astros' Chris Snyder leans away from a pitch from the Pirates in the fourth inning of a baseball game on Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)
The Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (27) is greeted in the dugout after scoring against the Pirates in the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP)

HOUSTON — James McDonald is floundering, but the Pirates have no plans to take him out of the rotation, even for just a start or two.

McDonald's second-half slide continued Sunday, as the Pirates were drubbed, 9-5, by the Houston Astros. The right-hander gave up five runs in five innings.

In four starts since the All-Star break, McDonald is 1-2 with an 8.71 ERA and a 2.28 WHIP. It's a sharp contrast to his dazzling first half, when McDonald went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP.

“Every year I've pitched, I've been in a situation like this, trying to fight my way out of rough (stretch),” McDonald said. “I've got some work ahead of me.”

It starts Monday, when McDonald will sit down for a frank evaluation season with manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage.

Having McDonald skip a start “could be talked about” later, Hurdle said. For now, McDonald remains slated to pitch Saturday against the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds.

“In society, we like to kick things to the curb and say, ‘He's no good, get somebody else,' ” Hurdle said. “You have to throw a kid a lifesaver every time he runs into turbulence. His last start before the All-Star break was lights out. So, where's the disconnect? That's what I'm looking for.”

McDonald (10-5) struggled with an inconsistent release point, lacked fastball command and threw too few first-pitch strikes. He threw 110 pitches and faced 27 batters in five innings.

“Physically, I'm fine,” McDonald said. “I'm just not making pitches I should be making and I'm getting behind guys.”

The Astros snapped a 12-game losing streak and also picked up their first win in their past 10 games against the Pirates.

The Astros lucked into a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Jose Altuve walked. Marwin Gonzalez hit a sharp grounder to the left side. Shortstop Jordy Mercer, who was breaking to cover second base, tried to make a diving stop but the ball caromed off his glove.

“It was a double play ball, no doubt, if (Altuve) wasn't running,” Mercer said. “All I could do was just try to knock it down.”

The ball rolled only a few inches into the outfield grass. Gonzalez sprinted into second base with what was scored a double. Altuve went to third, then scored on J.D. Martinez's sacrifice fly.

The Pirates grabbed a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Neil Walker walked, and Garrett Jones blasted a home run deep into the second deck of seats in right field.

“It felt great off the bat,” Jones said. “I knew I got it right away.”

It was clearly a fair ball, but there still was some room for debate. Jones homer, his 16th of the season, traveled an estimated 423 feet.

The fifth inning was disastrous for McDonald. Martinez led off with a blooper to right, but Jones couldn't decide how to play it, tumbled and let the ball land untouched for a triple.

Scott Moore singled through the drawn-in infield. Former Pirate Steve Pearce doubled. With one out and the bases loaded, Schafer hit a grounder to score Pearce and give the Astros a 5-2 lead.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or 412-320-7811.

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