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Astros knock down Bucs on way out of town

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

For a long while Wednesday, it was a mighty boring night to be a Pirates outfielder.

Things got interesting in the sixth inning, but that wasn't a positive development.

Right-hander Charlie Morton blanked the Houston Astros for five innings with an effective sinker and curveball that enticed them to pound ball after ball into the dirt. Busy times for the infielders; for the outfielders, not so much.

But the Astros finally got wise to Morton's guile and found ways to get the ball in the air. Four rapid-fire hits sparked them to a 8-2 victory, snapping the Pirates' three-game winning streak.

"It got out of hand," Morton said. "It kind of crept up on me, and then, all of the sudden, it fell apart."

The loss dropped the Pirates back into third place in the National League Central, a half-game behind Milwaukee and two games behind first-place St. Louis, pending their late game against Cincinnati.

The Pirates manufactured a run in the first against righty Bud Norris (5-6). Alex Presley singled, was sacrificed to second and scored on Andrew McCutchen's single.

Morton racked up six strikeouts through the first five innings. The other nine outs came on ground balls, including a double play that negated Clint Barmes' leadoff single in the fifth. Even two of the three hits Morton yielded to that point were grounders.

Left-handed batters have bedeviled Morton all season, but last night, he kept them at bay, particularly with a nasty curveball.

"When I realized it was working pretty well, it felt good coming out of my hands, and I was throwing it for strikes. I used it against righties, as well," Morton said. "Especially at this point in the season, when guys are getting their rhythm in the box, you've got to mix it up a little. You can't attack with just one pitch."

His curveball kept working, but the sinker abandoned Morton in the sixth.

"The velocity wasn't there, and the life wasn't there," he said.

The sixth began when speedy Michael Bourn tapped the ball to short. Chase d'Arnaud's throw was high and ticked off Lyle Overbay's glove. D'Arnaud was charged with the error.

Angel Sanchez doubled to center field — a legit, well-struck hit — and went to third when McCutchen bobbled the ball. Hunter Pence lined an RBI single to right, giving Houston the lead.

Carlos Lee lofted a ball to center. McCutchen tried to make one of his trademark sliding catches but missed. The ball rolled to the warning track, and Lee, chugging on 35-year-old legs, had his career-high fourth triple of the season.

"It just went out of my glove," McCutchen said. "I tried to catch it and wasn't able to catch it. It just went under my glove. That's it."

If McCutchen had played the ball on the bounce instead of trying to make the catch, Lee likely would have stopped with a single.

Jeff Keppinger poked a double into the left-field corner. With one out, Barmes' line-drive single scored Lee and ended Morton's night.

For a change, it was righty batters who did the damage against Morton. He spent a lot of the night shaking off newbie catcher Mike McKenry, who's caught each of Morton's past four starts.

It wasn't so much that Morton and McKenry were out of sync. Morton's desire to see what he could do against lefties with his curveball caused him to override some of McKenry's calls — something that rarely happened with veteran Chris Snyder behind the plate.

Morton (7-5) worked 5.1 innings, the fifth straight start in which he hasn't made it past the sixth inning. The six strikeouts matched his season high.

The Astros are the first NL Central team to beat Morton this season.

"Third time they faced me this year," Morton said. "So, in retrospect, I wish I had mixed up (my pitches) a little bit."

The Pirates lost their streak of seven consecutive victories against Houston — their longest run against the Astros since winning the final eight games against them in 1979 and the first one in 1980.

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