Pirates use five-run first inning to hand Astros their sixth loss in seven games

PITTSBURGH -- The starting pitching wasn't good enough, neither was the hitting. The Houston Astros have gone from the majors' hottest team to one of its coldest in only 10 days, and at the worst possible time.

Ryan Doumit drove in three runs with a pair of doubles in the first two innings and the Pittsburgh Pirates built a five-run lead in the first inning before holding on to beat the skidding Astros 6-4 on Saturday night.

Houston, which was threatening to take the wild card lead after running off 14 wins in 15 games, lost for the sixth time in seven games and is all but out of the NL playoff picture. The Astros are five games out of the wild card lead with barely a week left in the season.

"We're at the point where we can't lose any more games, and I think we've felt that way the last 10 games," Brian Moehler said after lasting one ineffective inning. "When you've got [three] teams in front of you, it's hard to make up ground."

The Astros' slump is the result of poor hitting -- they scored five runs in five consecutive losses before winning 5-1 on Friday -- but their pitching shared in the blame for their eighth loss in 15 games to the last-place Pirates.

The first four Pirates batters and five of their first six got hits against Moehler (11-8), who lasted a season-low one inning. Nyjer Morgan, Freddy Sanchez and Nate McLouth singled to score a run ahead of Doumit's two-run double, and Brandon Moss had a run-scoring triple and Andy LaRoche hit a sacrifice fly.

"They [Moehler's pitches] must have been in the middle of the plate because they all got good swings," manager Cecil Cooper said after Moehler's third loss in four decisions. "I don't have any answer. He's struggled pretty mightily. He hasn't been the same guy."

Moehler's explanation? Location, location, location.

"I didn't have it. I didn't locate well. I left pitches over the middle of the plate and they made me pay for it," Moehler said. "I don't know what it is. I can't finish pitches right now."

Morgan and Doumit each doubled in the second against reliever Dave Borkowski to make it 6-0 as the Pirates won for only the second time in six games. The crowd of 36,621 was the Pirates' ninth sellout at home this season and was drawn in part by a post-game Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.

"We got the big crowd into it early with the five runs in the first and the bullpen did a really good job," Pirates manager John Russell said.

After getting seven hits in the first two innings, the Pirates had only one more the rest of the game against five Houston relievers.

Pirates rookie Jimmy Barthmaier was lifted after giving up two runs in the third and allowing the first two batters to reach base in all three innings he pitched. Jason Davis (2-4) followed him with two scoreless innings for the victory as Russell used seven pitchers to strand 10 Houston runners. The Astros were 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

"First and third with nobody out in first inning, first and second with nobody out in the second, a leadoff two-base error in the fifth and a leadoff double in the sixth, and we get big goose eggs," Cooper said. "That's why we lost, we didn't do any damage in any innings when we had a chance. We had them on the ropes all night long, even after being down 5-0."

Matt Capps pitched the ninth for his 20th save in 25 opportunities and his third in as many chances since being out seven weeks with shoulder bursitis, but only after left fielder Morgan raced far to catch Geoff Blum's fly ball down the line with two runners on.

"He came out of nowhere [to make the catch], but that's what he does," Capps said.

Houston's Lance Berkman singled up the middle in the ninth to end a career-worst slump of 0-for-27 that helped drop his average from .338 on Sept. 1 to .315.

The Astros scored twice in the eighth against Tyler Yates on RBI singles by Ty Wigginton and pinch-hitter Mark Loretta.

Game notes
Moehler's ERA went from 4.33 to 4.61 in his one inning. He was 2-1 against Pittsburgh this season despite having a 9.39 ERA. ... Jack Wilson of the Pirates lined out as a pinch-hitter in the fifth, his first at-bat since breaking his right index finger Aug. 31. He is not expected to play defensively the rest of the season. ... The Astros' Wandy Rodriguez, who strained an oblique muscle Sept. 7, threw a side session Saturday and is expected to start Tuesday or Wednesday. ... Berkman hadn't had a hit since Sept. 9. ... Barthmaier gave up seven runs in 2 1/3 innings in his only previous start, June 27 against Tampa Bay. ... The Pirates walked three after giving up 19 walks combined in their previous two games.