The Houston Astros may be finishing another poor season, but Brett Myers is having a career year.
The right-hander looks to continue his impressive pitching and help the Astros extend their dominance of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday when the NL Central rivals begin their final series of 2010.
Myers (13-7, 2.76 ERA) won his fifth straight decision and stretched his streak of consecutive starts of six or more innings to begin a season to 31 by tossing seven shutout innings in a 4-3 victory over Central-leading Cincinnati on Sunday.
It is the longest such streak since Curt Schilling did it in his first 35 starts of 2002, while with Arizona.
Myers is in the top 10 in the majors in ERA and one win away from matching his career high, set in 2003 with Philadelphia when he went 14-9.
Houston has won 26 of 34 - 10 of 12 this year - against the major league-worst Pirates, who are one defeat away from their first 100-loss season since 2001. Myers is 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA in three starts this season against Pittsburgh (53-99).
The Pirates have won 11 of 16 at PNC Park and can finish above .500 at home for the first time since 2006 with a three-game sweep this weekend.
James McDonald (4-5, 4.09) will try to get them off to a good start when he takes the mound in the series opener.
The right-hander saw his 20-inning scoreless streak end Saturday, but he allowed two runs over five innings to beat Arizona 9-6 and move to 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in his last three starts.
McDonald is 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA in five starts at PNC Park since being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the July 31 trade deadline.
McDonald didn’t record an out in his only appearance against Houston, allowing two runs and two hits in relief while with the Dodgers on July 18, 2009.
Though it was still considerably younger than the lineup the Astros used early in the season with Kaz Matsui and Pedro Feliz manning infield spots, manager Brad Mills' lineup was veteran-heavy Thursday. It brought back to the forefront the question of balancing the desire to win now vs. the desire to watch young players get some seasoning and some exposure.
Facing Washington's left-hander Ross Detwiler, Mills played both Jason Michaels and Carlos Lee, who have typically played against left-handed pitchers.
Lee played first base for the fourth time in five days, as Brett Wallace took on a bench role. September call-up Brian Bogusevic, meanwhile, is the main competitor with Michaels for playing time as Michael Bourn sits injured.
Mills said Thursday that's it's been difficult to balance. He has stated repeatedly that reaching .500 for the season has never been a concrete goal. However, he's not ready to give up on winning now, even with the Astros sitting at 73-80 with nine games to play.
"That's never easy and really it's never fun, but you always want to give yourself the best opportunity you can to get a chance to win a ballgame," Mills said. "I think that's the competitive nature that every ballclub wants to have."
He did acknowledge some experimental work would have taken place had it not been for circumstances. The Astros were prepared to get their first look at Matt Downs at first base if Hunter Pence had been unable to return from a hip flexor injury, but Pence was back in action Thursday. Downs, 26, had played some first base in the minor leagues.
NATIONALS 7, ASTROS 2: Washington homered three times, including twice off Nelson Figueroa, as the Astros dropped three out of four in the series. The Astros did not homer and were denied several times by strong infield defense by the Nationals.
--RF Hunter Pence was back in the lineup Thursday after missing Wednesday's game with a strained hip flexor. Pence took the pregame time to run sprints in the outfield and test the hip in other situations under the gaze of trainer Nate Lucero. "I'm 100 percent; I'm ready to go," Pence said before the game. He went 2-for-4 with two singles.
--CF Michael Bourn made no progress toward a return from an oblique strain he suffered Sunday and was once again held out of any running, swinging or other baseball activity. Manager Brad Mills for the first time expressed the "slight chance" that Bourn might not play again this year but said he expects him back.
--RHP Nelson Figueroa was frustrated after his fourth straight poor outing, which followed an outstanding start to his Astros career. "I'm just kind of in a rut right now where this is how my last few outings have gone," said Figueroa, who allowed five runs in six innings Thursday. "It's not for lack of effort or lack of preparation. I've been working my butt off to be ready."
--2B Jeff Keppinger reached base four times Thursday, going 3-for-4 with a walk in a loss to the Nationals. Probably the most consistent hitter on the roster this season, Keppinger is hitting .325 (25-for-77) in his last 21 games.
--SS Tommy Manzella did not play in Thursday's game, but he was available one day after a pregame illness kept him from playing. Angel Sanchez started at shortstop and went 1-for-3.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2,389 -- Plate appearances in the minor leagues for 31-year-old C Brian Esposito before his first major league plate appearance Sept. 18. Esposito played in one big-league game in 2007 with the Cardinals but never batted.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've said you can be the greatest general in the United States Army and if you don't have the troops to run your war plan, then you're not going to look like a very good general." -- Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, deflecting some of the credit he has been receiving for the Astros' monumental turnaround in pitching from the first half of the season to the second.
--RF Hunter Pence (sore right hip flexor) left the Sept. 21 game, and he didn't play Sept. 22. He returned Sept. 23.
--CF Michael Bourn (strained right oblique muscle) left the Sept. 19 game. He didn't play Sept. 20-23, and he probably will miss at least a few more games.
--RHP Brian Moehler (right groin tear) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to July 8, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on Aug. 31. Moehler was diagnosed with a groin tear Aug. 5, a day after feeling a popping sensation during a simulated game. He made his first rehab appearance Aug. 24 with Class AAA Round Rock, but he left after three innings with renewed soreness in his groin. He had season-ending surgery Sept. 1 in Philadelphia to repair an abdominal muscle.
--RHP Alberto Arias (right rotator cuff impingement) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 26, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on May 4. He had season-ending surgery April 22.