Taveras extends hit streak in Astros' loss to Pirates

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Houston Astros are running out of time to start their late-season charge.

Houston fell a season-worst eight games under .500 and lost for the 10th time in 13 games Thursday night, 5-3 to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"It's not easy when you're in a run like this," outfielder Luke Scott said. "There's nothing you can do but go out there and prepare and whatever happens, happens."

The Pirates used a four-run sixth inning to rally for their third consecutive win. Jason Bay had three hits, Chris Duffy had two hits and two runs scored and Ronny Paulino and Jose Castillo each had two hits and an RBI for Pittsburgh.

"Another very well-played game, very similar to the last two nights... in that it was a collective effort," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "We got some timely hits when we needed them."

The Astros didn't, going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. The only bright spots for the defending NL champions were that Willy Taveras extended his club-record hitting streak to 27 games with two hits and Chris Burke hit his eighth home run. Neither changed the fact Houston remains in fourth place in the NL

As late as June 9 of last season, Houston was in last place and was just a game above .500 at the All-Star break. But the Astros were the NL's best team in the second half to earn the wild card and advance to the World Series.

The signing and debut of Roger Clemens in June fuled optimism that Houston would repeat that success this season.

Still within seven games of division-leading St. Louis and the wild card, the Astros' season isn't effectively over -- yet. The Cardinals lost to the New York Mets Thursday night, a fact Garner took little solace in.

"We're not playing against them," Garner said. "We're playing against ourselves. We're trying to get to .500 and we're not doing a very good job of that."

The Astros are 17-22 since the All-Star break, while Pittsburgh improved to 20-18.

"We've played credible, winning baseball the second half," Tracy said. "All the little things we weren't doing an effective enough job of in the first half, we did in that sixth inning."

The Pirates were trailing 3-1 heading into the sixth, which began when Duffy singled off Houston starter Wandy Rodriguez, stole second and scored on Freddy Sanchez's single.

"We weren't getting many clutch hits early in the year," Bay said. "We're getting those now."

Three batters later and after Chad Qualls relieved Rodriguez, Paulino chopped a single to left to score Sanchez, Jose Bautista's
sacrifice fly drove in Bay and Castillo followed with an RBI single to give the Pirates the 5-3 lead.

The Pirates were 4-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

"Any day you do that, you deserve to win," Bautista said. "With our bullpen, it's always much easier on them to end up with a couple-run lead."

Paul Maholm (6-10) worked his way through a shaky first three innings to earn the victory for Pittsburgh, which has won three straight games. He gave up three runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings.

After Maholm escaped a three-walk first inning without allowing a run, the Astros took a 3-0 lead in the third.

Taveras led off with a bunt single before Burke homered on a 3-1 pitch. Two batters later, Craig Biggio drove in Scott with a single.

"After I gave up those three runs, I just knew we were going to score some runs, so I just wanted to keep them right there," Maholm said.

Mike Gonzalez worked the ninth for his 24th save in 24 opportunities.

Bay drove in Duffy with a two-out double to center in the fourth off Rodriguez (9-8), who gave up five runs and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. He struck out seven and walked none and remained winless since July 2.

"You can't expect him to keep putting up zeroes," Garner said. "You have to score some runs to win in this league.

Game notes
Houston's J.R. House, a former top prospect in the Pirates organization who played football at nearby West Virginia University last year, made his Astros debut behind the plate. He went 0-for-3
before being pinch hit for in the eighth. Promoted from Triple-A Round Rock on Sunday, House had appeared in two games at first base. ... Pittsburgh reliever Matt Capps walked Morgan Ensberg with a man on and two outs in the seventh -- his first non-intentional walk
since June 14. ... The game was the first of 20 in a row for the Pirates within the NL Central.