As fast as the Houston Astros played themselves into the playoff race, they've needed less time to practically play themselves out of it.
The fading Astros look to avoid a sixth consecutive loss when they begin their final road series on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates.Houston (80-72) fell 8-1 on Thursday to conclude a sweep at the hands of the Marlins, who like the Astros, are five games behind of the NL wild-card leading New York Mets with nine remaining.The loss left Houston winless since Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast and forced the first two games of its weekend home series with the Chicago Cubs to be moved to Milwaukee's Miller Park.Houston, which had won six straight and 14 of 15 to move within three games of the wild-card lead before the storm forced it to sit idle last Friday and Saturday, is hitting .107 (16-for-150) while being outscored 38-11 during its five-game skid."It's just been a team-wide collapse, basically," first baseman Lance Berkman said. "There's no way to sugarcoat it. You can make all the excuses you want. We just haven't played well."On Thursday, Berkman drove in the lone run, but is 0-for-21 in his last seven games. Berkman, though, is batting .317 (13-for-41) with eight RBIs against the Pirates in 2008.Randy Wolf (10-12, 4.58 ERA) takes the mound for the Astros, trying to bounce back from his last outing Sunday when the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter. Wolf allowed four earned runs and six hits in 2 2-3 innings of the 5-0 loss.The left-hander, who is 4-2 in 10 starts since being acquired from San Diego, has shined against the Pirates, winning five straight decisions versus them for a 6-1 mark with a 3.64 ERA. He allowed three runs in seven innings of a 9-3 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 9.The Astros hope to end their losing stretch while facing Pittsburgh (64-89), the last team they beat by taking four straight at home from Sept. 8-11. Houston, though, is 2-4 at PNC Park this season.The Pirates' counter with Ian Snell (6-11, 5.69), who looks to bounce from his last outing where he allowed five earned runs and nine hits in four innings of a 7-6 12-inning win over St. Louis on Saturday.He just got into a little bit of a rut with two outs," manager John Russell told the Pirates' official Web site. "He's throwing the ball much better. I liked the way the ball came out."The right-hander, who's one loss away from tying a season high set in 2007, is 2-4 with a 4.55 ERA in 11 starts against Houston and 0-1 with a 6.39 ERA in three starts versus the Astros in 2008.Pittsburgh lost 4-3 in 12 innings to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday and dropped three of four to the NL West leaders."That's a tough game to lose," Pirates' starting pitcher Paul Maholm said. "We were that close."Nate McLouth doubled and drove in a run for Pittsburgh, which is on the verge of a fourth consecutive season with 90 or more losses.The All-Star center fielder is batting .377 (23-for-61) with 16 RBIs in September, and .321 with three homers and seven RBIs this season versus Houston.