In a six-game homestand against baseball's two worst teams, the scuffling Pirates hope to continue their dominance over the Houston Astros in Monday's series opener.
After having a 3 1/2-game cushion to secure a playoff berth Aug. 8, Pittsburgh (70-63) is now 1 1/2 back of the NL's second wild-card spot. The Pirates have lost nine of 12, and are 7-16 since Aug. 9. The Astros, at 5-17, are the only NL team with a worse record in that span.
Although things seem bleak for Pittsburgh after being swept in three games by the Brewers, there is plenty of reason for optimism with three against Houston (41-93) followed by three with the Chicago Cubs - teams that are a combined 83 games under .500.
Pittsburgh has also fared well against each club. It is 9-2 against the Astros, and has won the last six meetings at PNC Park.
The Pirates will get their first look at Edgar Gonzalez, who is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Gonzalez had a 0.69 ERA in two starts for the RedHawks after pitching in the Mexican League. The right-hander has appeared in just one game since the conclusion of the 2009 season, throwing two innings of relief for Colorado last August.
The Pirates are going with a call-up of their own, with Jeff Locke (0-0, 0.00 ERA) making the jump from Triple-A Indianapolis to take the spot in the rotation of Erik Bedard, who was released on Tuesday.
The Astros have added to the competition for a roster spot at third base next year, claiming Brandon Laird off waivers. Previously, with Brett Wallace settling in at first, the options had basically been Matt Dominguez or a free agent, but general manager Jeff Luhnow found a way to add a bat still just 24 with a waiver claim from the Yankees.
That's the long term. In the short term, Laird will see some time at third base, first base and the outfield in the final month of the season. Laird joined the Astros before Sunday's 5-3 loss to the Reds, but it will still be Dominguez for the very near future.
"He's been out of baseball for about 10 days now, getting some work in, so it will take him a few days to get back in shape," manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "By midweek we'll get him in a game."
Laird was placed on waivers in a Yankees roster squeeze, but general manager Jeff Luhnow still thinks there's prospect potential. He's still just 24 and despite never having outstanding numbers in Triple-A, he hit 15 home runs there this season.
"We feel like he's got enough position with the bat where he can play third, he can play first and play a little bit of outfield," Luhnow said. "It's a right-handed power bat that in this stadium could end up being an important piece of the puzzle for us."
Laird said he was pleased with the chance to come to a rebuilding Astros team that has given young players plenty of opportunities.
"You're just waiting for the call, and things didn't go the way I wanted in New York," he said after being designated for assignment. "I was patient, waited, and my agent said teams liked me and the Astros took me, and I'm excited to be here and get a chance to see what I can do."
RHP Edgar Gonzalez was called up to start Monday's game against the Pirates. Gonzalez, who has spent most of his major-league career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, had been pitching this season in the Mexican League and allowed one earned run in 13 innings over two Triple-A starts.
2B Jose Altuve went 0-for-4 Sunday to finish a six-game homestand 2-for-24 and has shown manager Tony DeFrancesco signs of tiring, so DeFrancesco will be giving him more days off down the stretch. "I don't want to see him fade in September," DeFrancesco said. "We'll try to, maybe in some day games, give him some time off. He's been going hard all season and it's the time of the year where we're just trying to keep him fresh."
OF Jordan Schafer returned from the 15-day disabled list over the weekend after five games of a rehab assignment for a separated shoulder. Schafer is hoping for a smooth ending to a season of injury and illness. "It's feeling better. We'll just hope it stays that way," Schafer said.
INF Matt Downs was called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City when rosters expanded and hit a double and scored the game-winning run as a pinch-hitter in his first game back Saturday. Downs is trying to regain his form from 2011 when he was one of the league's best pinch-hitters. "It's always nice to get a swing like that on your first at-bat back," said Downs, who raised his average to .213 as he tries to get the swing back. "I went down there and got some consistent at-bats and had a little bit of success down there and maybe I'll be able to translate it up here."
RHP Jose Valdez brings an unusual set of statistics with him from Triple-A Oklahoma City upon being added to the major-league roster as a September call-up. Valdez closed for Oklahoma City and compiled a 4.95 ERA, but his peripheral stats tell a much better story. He issued just seven unintentional walks and struck out 59 in 43 2/3 innings.
RF Jimmy Paredes may have some faulty equipment that has led to some of his early defensive struggles. "It had a loose tip to it, and every time he put the glove on the ground the tip would break down so there was no pocket for the ball to go in," manager Tony DeFrancesco said. (Coach Dave Clark) got rid of that glove today. Hopefully we won't see any more of those plays." Of course, he is also transitioning to a new position from infield, which can't be helping either.
Quote To Note: "I'll make sure next time he (RHP Lucas Harrell) pitches Maxwell's going to be in the lineup." —Manager Tony DeFrancesco on OF Justin Maxwell, who has 13 home runs, including seven when Harrell is pitching.