PITTSBURGH -- Monday afternoon's game had to be the most laborious of the Pirates' entire season. At a time contenders try to man-up and put doormats in their place, the Houston Astros and Edgar Gonzalez were wiping their spikes on the Bucs.With Gonzalez frustrating Pittsburgh for 5 1/3 innings in his first big league start since Sept. 27, 2009, the Pirates fell, 5-1, in front of an increasingly restless holiday crowd. That's four losses in a row and 10 of 13. The Bucs are dangerously close to wandering on the wrong side of the line between slump and collapse. "We need to put our foot down [Tuesday], is what we need to do," said manager Clint Hurdle. He repeated, "We need to put our foot down and connect the dots better. We mishandled the ball and didn't show up on offense." The Bucs felt they got a raw deal. Several, in fact. Two potential double-play balls on defense, neither turned, resulting in perhaps four of Houston's runs. One bad Jeff Locke hanger, hammered out of the yard for three runs by Brett Wallace. All true, but a game between a team thinking of the postseason and another thinking of the future shouldn't hinge on such breaks. "I told you he'd be hungry," Hurdle said of Gonzalez. "He wants to stay in the big leagues. And we just weren't able to answer." In a matchup of two pitchers making their first big league starts of the season, young Pittsburgh lefty Locke was shown up by a right-hander with a lot of tread wear. Locke gave Gonzalez a tenacious battle until their duel was broken up by Wallace's three-run homer in the fifth. "That one pitch is the only thing that really sticks out for me," Locke said. "Otherwise, a lot of positives to take away and into my next chance." While giving Locke overall good marks, Hurdle had to chortle when the "one bad pitch" issue came up. "We always joke about that. It's kinda like, 'If I'd made a few putts, I'd have shot a 69. I shot a 75.' In Jeff's case," Hurdle said, "he did pitch well. He used his fastball very well, he changed speeds. He should walk away knowing he did some good things out there." Calling them "doormats" is not a subjective shot at the Astros -- with 93 losses, the rebuilding club came into PNC Park with 11 more defeats than any other team in the Majors. Furthermore, the Astros had been 9-50 since the end of June and had lost 31 of their previous 35 road games. Gonzalez himself came in essentially from the Mexican League (except for a pair of tuneup starts in Triple-A Oklahoma City) and represents the classic journeyman pitcher. At 29, he is with his fourth Major League team, has a total of 14 Major League wins and has 178 Minor League starts on his resume. According to Hurdle's recollection, Gonzalez apparently has changed his look as often as his uniform. "I've seen him with long hair, I've seen him with short hair," said Hurdle, who had never seen him like this, however. Gonzalez allowed five hits and a run while walking one and striking out five to earn his first victory since April 24, 2008, with the D-backs. The Pirates appeared to have no chance against Gonzalez short of cloning Garrett Jones, who had three of the five hits off him. A fifth-inning triple by Pedro Alvarez and the Clint Barmes RBI single that scored Alvarez were the only others. "I was just focused on throwing down in the zone," Gonzalez said. "I made a mistake a couple of times like the ball to Jones, I threw a changeup up and away, so he got me. Actually he got me three times." That at least got Jones a draw with Wallace, who saw three pitches from Locke and got three hits: Singles to set up scoring innings in the first and third, the homer in the fifth. Locke began with a bad-news, good-news first inning. The bad news was the Astros loading the bases with none out, on singles by Jose Altuve, Tyler Greene (bunt) and Wallace. The good news was that he allowed only one run out of that -- and even it was disputed. "I don't think you ever wish to start a game like that," Locke said. "A few pitches into it, balls all over the place and the bases are loaded." After Justin Maxwell hit a comebacker for a forceout at home, Matt Downs bounced a high chopper off Locke's mitt. Were it not for that deflection, it would've been an inning-ending double play, because second baseman Brock Holt "had a bead on it, I would've grabbed it right by the bag." It still should have been a double play, the Pirates insisted after Maxwell swerved to avoid the tag by Holt, who continued the play by throwing out the batter. "[Second-base umpire Jordan Baker] said he was not out of the baseline," relayed Hurdle, who had gone out to protest. "He made a bad call. He was out of the baseline, and we didn't get the call." Instead, the Astros had a 1-0 lead. Houston's second run in the third also scored on an out -- Maxwell's grounder deep into the shortstop hole, after Greene had walked with one out and motored to third on Wallace's single. Houston's final three runs came in the fifth on a ball hit out. After Altuve singled and Greene was generously awarded an infield hit on a grounder to short that was double-clutched then thrown wide by Barmes, Wallace jumped all over Locke's first pitch to lift his seventh homer into the right-center seats. "He'd hit two fastballs for singles, so I had to try something different," Locke said of the curve, which stayed up. If handled cleanly, could Greene's grounder even have turned into a double play ending the inning without any scoring? "Until I got that bad grip on it, yes, I was planning to go to second," Barmes said. "I don't think we could've turned two. But we definitely should've had at least one out." "It would've been hard to turn two -- but we did have a shot at shoveling to second and throwing on to first," Hurdle said. "A play was there to be made, and we didn't make it. Two would've been tough, but we didn't get either." That was Locke's last inning. In five innings, he was charged with seven hits and five runs, with one walk and six strikeouts that illustrated his sharp command. He threw 76 percent of his pitches (58 of 76) for strikes, an excellent ratio.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.