MLB Insiders: Houston Astros

James McDonald

The Pirates open a three-game series with the Houston Astros on Friday night at PNC Park. Right-hander James McDonald will pitch for the Bucs. The Astros will toss righty Bud Norris.

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't given James McDonald much help this season.

He may not need a whole lot as the Pirates open this three-game series with the slumping Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Friday night.

McDonald (2-1, 2.70 ERA) has been backed by two or fewer runs in five of his six starts, and he's yet to allow more than three runs in any of his outings.

The right-hander appears to be finally getting enough support to collect some victories. He received just two runs, but yielded one while striking out seven in 6 1-3 innings of Saturday's 3-2 win over Cincinnati. That came five days after he was backed with a season-high nine runs as he allowed three and fanned a career-high 10 to lead Pittsburgh (14-17) to a 9-3 win at Atlanta.

McDonald wasn't this effective last season when he went 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA.

The Pirates may be excited to see McDonald take the mound against the Astros (14-17), who are hitting .195 with seven runs in losing three of four after compiling a .287 average with 14 homers over the previous 12 games - winning eight.

McDonald is 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA in five career starts versus the NL Central rival.

He may need to be prepared for another rough performance from his lineup, which has a .185 average with 15 runs while splitting the first six of this nine-game homestand.

The Astros are trying to regroup after falling 5-3 to Miami on Wednesday.

Bud Norris (2-1, 4.58) is expected to get the ball as he tries to win back-to-back starts for the first time since June 2-8.

The right-hander turned in one of his best performances of the season Saturday, allowing an unearned run and three hits with four walks in six innings of an 8-2 win over St. Louis. He's completed at least six innings in five of his six outings on the season.

Norris is 3-4 with a 4.04 ERA in eight starts against the Pirates, going 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in four at PNC Park.

There's something to be said Jed Lowrie getting a fresh start. There's something to be said for Lowrie to be the unquestioned starting shortstop for the Astros.

There's something to be said for the switch-hitting Lowrie working with hitting coach Mike Barnett to refine his approach to hitting from the left side of the plate.

Mostly, though, there's something to be said for something a subject Lowrie would prefer not to broach.

"First of all, I've been healthy," Lowrie said.

Nearly a fifth of the way into the season, Lowrie has .301/.387/.473 batting line.

Lowrie, 28, entered Thursday ranked fourth among major league shortstops in slugging and fifth in on-base percentage. He is on pace for 486 at-bats, which would constitute a major breakthrough.

Mostly because of an assortment of injuries and maladies, Lowrie has yet to play in 90 games or accumulate 310 at-bats in a big-league season.

"I always knew that injuries were the thing that kept him from fulfilling his potential," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "And if you look at his injuries, they all seem to be sort of freak, non-recurring injuries.

"That's why we jumped at the opportunity to get him in the organization, figuring if he plays a healthy season he's going to put up not only a good batting average, a good on-base percentage, a good slugging percentage, and be at least an average defensive shortstop. He's doing exactly what I expected him to do."

Lowrie was a first-round draft choice of the Red Sox in 2005 and made it to the majors by 2008. Staying on the active roster has proved to be more difficult than hitting or catching the ball.

Mostly because of an assortment of injuries and maladies, Lowrie has yet to play in 90 games or accumulate 310 at-bats in a big-league season.

A wrist injury from a pitched ball cost him basically an entire year, a bout with mononucleosis sabotaged another season, and he was off to a flying start in 2011 before getting into a collision with outfielder Carl Crawford that caused a lingering shoulder injury.

Acquired in the December trade that sent reliever Mark Melancon to the Red Sox, Lowrie had to delay his Astros debut six games because of a freakish thumb injury sustained diving back to second base on a pick-off play.

"In my eyes, the injuries I've had are completely out of my control," Lowrie said. "They're injuries that are traumatic injuries that don't happen on a baseball field very often. Unfortunately, I've had a handful of them, more than my fair share at this point.

"To characterize me as injury-prone, I think is unfair, but the reality is I've missed a lot of games because of those injuries. I feel like I've taken really good care of my body and come back from those injuries strong because of that."

By FanGraphs' Runs Above Replacement and Wins Above Replacement measures, Lowrie has been the 18th-most productive position player in the majors, third among shortstops, this season.

Lowrie has been on a tear in his last 15 games, batting .345, with four home runs, and slugging .603 in 58 at-bats.

"I've always had the mindset that you prepare, and the results will come," Lowrie said. "With the length of the season, all you can do is prepare for the games and be ready to go and the results will be there. You have to trust that."


RHP Rhiner Cruz (sprained ankle) returned from the disabled list and pitched a scoreless inning Wednesday in a 5-3, 12-inning loss to the Marlins. The return of Cruz bolsters a bullpen that has a 2.79 ERA (fourth-best in the National League entering Thursday). "We're kind of excited to get a good arm back," manager Brad Mills said. "The bullpen has done a great job and it continues to do a great job. Getting another arm back in there will only bolster that."

RHP Bud Norris (2-1, 4.58 ERA) will start the opener Friday of a three-game series in Pittsburgh. Though PNC Park is pitcher-friendly, Norris is 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in four career starts in that park.

3B Chris Johnson truly has regained his 2010 form, when he posted a .308/.337/.481 batting line with 11 home runs and 52 RBI in 341 at-bats. His adjusted on-base-plus slugging in 2010 was 121, exactly what it is entering the Astros' five-game trip to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Johnson has a .295/.331/.473 line this season and hit four home runs in his past 26 at-bats.

LHP J.A. Happ, coming off a shaky start against the Cardinals (five innings, five earned runs), should be plenty eager to get a crack at the Pirates on Saturday. Happ has a 2.52 ERA in eight career starts against the Pirates, with 41 strikeouts in 50 innings.

INF Matt Downs is one of the players manager Brad Mills cites as being one of the bench players in need of some at-bats. Downs' .175/.214/.425 line is down considerably from the .276/.347/.518 he posted last season as a pinch-hitter/super-sub extraordinaire. He has three hits in his last 24 at-bats, with two of the hits being home runs.

1B Carlos Lee is batting .333 in his last 12 games (14-for-42), but his power stroke has taken a leave of absence. Lee has only two home runs this season and he hasn't gone deep since a first-inning blast off Dodgers' RHP Chad Billingsley in a 12-0 win on April 22.

By The Numbers: 7—Number of runs scored in the last four games by the Astros, who batted .195 (26-for-133) in that stretch.

Quote To Note: "You can't win every game. But if we play the way we did (Wednesday), I think we'll be all right more often than not." —RF Brian Bogusevic, after the Astros' 12-inning, 5-3 loss to the Marlins on Wednesday in a game that lasted 4:10. Recommended Stories

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