It took a little longer this year, but it appears these are the same old Pittsburgh Pirates.
Flailing and running on fumes as they desperately try to stay in the wild-card race, the visiting Pirates' last stand could start Friday night against the Houston Astros.
It wasn't expected to be this way for Pittsburgh as it made its way to the top half of the NL Central for a second straight year. The Pirates were 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8, in contention for the division lead and in control of the second wild-card spot as the memories of last year's fade to a 90-loss season seemed buried.
Like deja vu all over again, though, the bottom has fallen out - but this time in swift, stunning and staggering fashion.
Pittsburgh has lost 28 of 39 since that high-water mark, capped by a three-game sweep at home at the hands of Milwaukee. Thursday's 9-7 loss dropped the Pirates 5 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the second wild-card spot, a seemingly insurmountable deficit with 13 games remaining for a team at a loss for answers.
The talk has gone from playoffs to the fight the Pirates (74-75) now have to avoid a 20th consecutive losing season that would extend their own dubious record as the longest among all North American professional sports teams.
Jeff Locke (0-1, 5.49 ERA) appears an unlikely candidate to rally around for the Pirates as he again seeks his first major league win. The right-hander did not get a decision Sunday after giving up five runs and seven hits in 4 1-3 innings of a 13-9 loss at Chicago. Locke has been reached for five runs in two of his three starts while serving up five home runs in 15 1-3 innings over those outings.
His first start this season came against Houston on Sept. 3, when he yielded five runs in five innings of a 5-1 defeat.
Despite a second straight 100-loss season that likely will result again in the worst record in franchise history, the Astros (48-102) have played better - albeit barely - than the Pirates in the last six weeks, going 12-26 since Aug. 8. Houston did Pittsburgh no favors in St. Louis ahead of this series, getting swept in a three-game set after a 5-4 loss Thursday.
Houston scored five runs in the series, thwarted offensively by going 4 for 35 with runners in scoring position.
After two good starts since joining the team from the Mexican League, Edgar Gonzalez (2-1, 4.40) tries to bounce back from a bad one. He took the loss last Friday against Philadelphia, giving up five runs in four innings of a 12-6 defeat.
Gonzalez beat Locke in his season debut, limiting the Pirates to one run in 5 1-3 innings.
Jed Lowrie was not in the starting lineup and played one inning in the field in Thursday's 5-4 loss to the Cardinals, making sure to rest in his road back from multiple leg injuries. Lowrie has clearly not been 100 percent in the field, which he acknowledges.
"I still feel like I'm getting my sea legs underneath me trying to get back into shape, and I'll probably be in perfect shape going into the offseason," Lowrie said. "I think what we're doing right now, playing back-to-back games and getting a day (off), is good for now, but by the end of the year, hopefully my legs will be at a point where I can play the last four or five games in a row."
His at-bats have been consistently good since coming back. It's just that his range has been limited -- he's having trouble with some of the lateral movement.
"He looks like he's a step slow out there, and it's not like he's not trying," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "He's got to get his knee moving and get some strength in there.
"That was a pretty big setback for him. You're talking two months without playing, and you're trying to throw him in with no real rehab."
An important part of the Astros' plans for next year, whether they make him a key part of their offense or trade him, Lowrie expects to be 100 percent by mid-February.
"There's still some progress to be made, but I think I'm happy with the way it's reacting right now," Lowrie said. "Given the offseason, range and everything will be right where it needs to be."
INF Marwin Gonzalez started at shortstop, his first action since injuring his ankle on August 30. "He's not 100 percent running right now, but defensively he says he can move out there," manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "We need him back in the lineup. I think he's a guy we're kind of planning on—he could be our utility guy for next season—and we want to make sure he finishes the season strong."
RHP Bud Norris allowed five runs in 5 1/3 innings in the Astros' loss to the Cardinals. He had been questionable for the start with flu symptoms and also had a recurrence of the blister on his hand. "It's been a tough couple of days, but I went out there and just gave it everything I had," Norris said.
OF Justin Maxwell had an adventurous day in right field, watching a ball fall between three fielders before a home run in the first inning and making a diving catch while taking out 1B Brandon Laird in the second. "I was just determined to catch that one after (Matt) Holliday's fell in before (Allen) Craig's homer, and I didn't want that to happen again," Maxwell said.
SS Tyler Greene returned in a reserve role Thursday after a scare Wednesday with what was believed to be a cartilage problem in his right knee. "For whatever reason, it got locked up and I wasn't able to straighten it," Greene said.
LF J.D. Martinez grounded into one of the Astros' two double plays, which was also one of their five outs made with the bases loaded Thursday. Overall, they left 11 runners on base in a 5-4 loss to the Cardinals. "Somebody up there definitely has to come into the situation and believe they can do it and take the pressure off," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said.
By The Numbers:
21—Players the Astros used in a nine-inning game against the Cardinals on Thursday, pinch-hitting and pinch-running at seemingly every chance.
Quote To Note:
"We know what they're playing for, but we're not going to hand anything to anyone. We're going to see them again next week, so hopefully we can take some games from them then."
—OF Justin Maxwell on getting swept by the Cardinals.