MLB Insiders: Houston Astros

The Pirates open a three-game series in Houston on Friday night. Right-hander Jeff Karstens will be on the hill for the Bucs. The Astros will toss righty Brett Myers.

Two teams headed in opposite directions face off when the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates return from the All-Star break with a weekend series.

The surprising Pirates have abandoned their usual spot in the basement of the NL Central for a much better view near the top of the division, finishing the first half with a winning record for the first time since 1992. The Astros? They dropped nine of 10 to limp into the break with a major league-worst 30-62 record.

The Pirates (47-43) are just 10 games away from matching their win total from last year's major league-worst 57-105 season. The huge turnaround was one of baseball's biggest surprises in the first half.

Right-hander Jeff Karstens will start on Friday in Houston, Karstens and the rest of Pittsburgh's rotation have played a prominent role in the Pirates' success this season. Karstens' 2.55 ERA is fifth in the NL and teammate Paul Maholm is just behind him in eighth with an ERA of 2.96.

Righty Brett Myers gets the start for the Astros.

There's nothing the Astros can do about 30-62. That was among the messages as baseball's worst team reconvened after the All-Star break trying to do something about the last 70 games.

The Astros must go 33-37 in order to avoid their first 100-loss season in a 49-year existence, and must go exactly .500 or better in order to avoid the worst season in franchise history.

So improvement is definitely on the minds of the Astros, who open the second half Friday against Pittsburgh and continue the homestand with the Nationals.

"We in here don't think those teams are that much better than us," third baseman Chris Johnson said. "So we have to go out in the second half, bust our butt and try to prove it."

Based on their runs scored and allowed, the Astros projected to be five games better than they actually are.

Houston lost a host of close games thanks to baseball's leakiest bullpen and spells of poor hitting in the clutch, and have been out of contention almost from the outset.

That pattern of letting winnable games get away is the first thing that has to change, manager Brad Mills said.

"You look back at the first couple of months and the opportunities we had to win games, and those things got away from us a little bit," Mills said.

"Those are the games we want to win to get started right away."

The Astros lost nine of their last 10 games before the All-Star break, and 14 of their last 16. So the plans were very simple for the break.

"Get your mind off what's going on and get a fresh new start," center fielder Michael Bourn said. "That's all you can say."

NOTES, QUOTES

--RF Hunter Pence was excused from the Astros' workout on Thursday because he didn't have an All-Star break because of his participation in the Midsummer Classic. General manager Ed Wade was at the game, while manager Brad Mills watched highlights on television.

--OF Jason Bourgeois (strained right quadriceps) is nearing a rehab assignment, but the Astros want to be very careful, as general manager Ed Wade wonders if he returned too quickly from his first quad flare-up, which caused him to be shelved when it acted up again. "The one thing we want to make sure of is to make sure we're giving him an opportunity to get healthy," Wade said. "In his desire to want to be out there every day, he's going to tell you he's closer than he is. We have to make sure that he's there."

--CF Michael Bourn hears his name in trade rumors as one of the big assets on a team that has collectively acknowledged being a seller at the deadline. Bourn, a Houston native and University of Houston alum, said his preference would be to stay put, but has little sway. "I have no control over that," Bourn said. "I don't have a no-trade clause or anything like that where I can make a decision."

--LHP Gustavo Chacin was released by the Astros on Wednesday after the veteran of five major league seasons with Toronto and Houston was never called up from Class AAA this year. Chacin went 2-2 with a 4.70 ERA in 44 games for the major league club in 2010 and struggled again for Class AAA Oklahoma City, going 3-6 with a 5.13 ERA between the rotation and the bullpen.

--LHP J.A. Happ simulated two innings of throwing to Astros' hitters in a workout on the eve of the season's second half. The struggling Happ, 3-11 with a 5.76 ERA, will have 11 days between starts and has twice thrown to hitters instead of his usual bullpen session as he tries to correct mechanical issues.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- Times the Astros walked the leadoff batter of the game during their four-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins. In 21 1/3 innings, Astros starters walked 19 batters and allowed 20 earned runs.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know. I usually talk to myself because I'm kind of a messed-up individual, I guess. I have a loose screw sometimes, especially when I cross the lines. I don't know what I was saying to myself. I can't even think about it." -- RHP Brett Myers, asked what he was saying when he talked to himself while walking off the mound at the end of an inning during his Saturday start against the Marlins.

ROSTER REPORT
MEDICAL WATCH:

--OF Jason Bourgeois (strained right quadriceps) went on the 15-day disabled list June 29. He began a rehab assignment with the Astros' affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League on July 12.

--RHP Brandon Lyon (right biceps tendinitis, partially torn right rotator cuff) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 14. He underwent season-ending surgery June 30.

--RHP Alberto Arias (sore right shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He threw to live hitters at extended spring training for the first time April 10. Arias felt another impingement in his shoulder April 15. He underwent an arthroscopic procedure June 3, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on June 29. He might resume throwing in late July or August.

--C Jason Castro (right knee surgery in March 2011) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on May 28. He was participating in baseball activities in late June, and he hopes to return to action before the end of the season.

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