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PIT@HOU: Locke strikes out eight over five innings

HOUSTON -- The Pirates succumbed docilely to Houston righty Edgar Gonzalez and his bullpen posse on Friday, the first day of fall, according to the calendar.

According to the Pirates' schedule, however, the first day of the fall was when they had their initial run-in with Gonzalez, the 29-year-old from Mexico who is bent on reviving his big league career after a three-year lull.

That fall, out of a Wild Card race and from grace, continued in Minute Maid Park with a 7-1 loss to the Astros, who have lost 102 games, but only 10 of their last 19, compared to the reeling Bucs' 4-15 record across that stretch.

So the Astros, disguised as the old Colt 45s in their throwback uniforms, were hardly prone to be sympathetic to the Bucs' plight.

"For me, I don't feel bad for anybody right now," said Houston manager Tony DeFrancesco. "We're going to go out and try to compete and try to win series until the end of the season here."

Rookie left-hander Jeff Locke's shaky start, quickly ruined by a three-run homer in the first, looked good only in the reflection of the relief debut of James McDonald, who failed to retire any of the four men he faced.

"Out of the gate, down 3-0. It's always tough for a team to play from a hole," said Locke, who remained winless in 10 big league appearances, eight of them starts.

Holes have become a recurring problem for the Pirates. So much so, in fact, that manager Clint Hurdle was asked whether they have had the fight taken out of them by virtually having to get out of bed in comeback mode.

"If you come sit in the dugout with us, you might feel different," said Hurdle, alluding to the spirited life on the bench. "It can get frustrating, but you've got to be able to put something back on the board."

The Pirates could do little climbing against a battalion of seven Houston pitchers. Welcome to September baseball and its expanded rosters.

Gonzalez's presence in this game was little more than symbolic -- he lasted only 1 2/3 innings before leaving with a strained right hamstring. But he will be recalled as the well-traveled journeyman responsible for putting the Pirates into the offensive funk that sent them to skid row. Since he held them to five hits and a run in 5 1/3 innings of his comeback start and 5-1 win on Sept. 3 -- his first big league start in three years -- the Bucs have gone 4-13.

And if the Pirates appeared to get a break when Gonzalez had to depart, Astros relievers mocked that impression.

It began with Fernando Rodriguez, who pitched two-hit ball for 3 1/3 innings, and continued through Jose Valdez, Xavier Cedeno, Mickey Storey, Rhiner Cruz and Wilton Lopez.

They've got a lot of guys there with big upsides," Hurdle said of that relief corps. "They've got big arms. You look at some of their numbers when they come in and say, 'Oh my gosh' -- but the arms are big, and when they're on, they play well."

This was Rodriguez's 116th Major League appearance -- but the first time the reliever had gone longer than two innings. He set a good example for all who followed in the co-op pitching effort.

Gonzalez injured himself delivering ball four to Michael McKenry, with Pedro Alvarez already aboard via a two-out single. Brock Holt, the first batter to face Rodriguez, hit a routine grounder to short which went for an infield hit when Jed Lowrie looked to make the flip to second for the force, except second baseman Jose Altuve wasn't covering the bag.

So, the Bucs had the bases loaded. They also had Locke at bat, and he fanned on four pitches.

Pittsburgh did not get another runner into scoring position until the sixth, when they again loaded the bases -- before Cedeno fanned Alvarez on three pitches.

"We had a big opportunity to throw a punch there. We couldn't come through," Hurdle said. "Basically, that was the only shot we had. Again, we didn't play a complete game."

Locke presented the Pirates with an immediate three-run handicap, the runs scoring on Lowrie's two-out homer in the first inning. The day before, Wandy Rodriguez had spotted the Brewers three runs in the first. The Bucs are hoping this isn't some new southpaw tradition.

Lowrie's home run was a the fifth given up by Locke in his last 12 innings.

"I can't say the long ball hasn't hurt me," Locke noted. "A lot of them have come in situations where I've got to put the inning away. You got two outs, you've got to get the third."

Emerging from the bullpen for the first time for the Pirates after 71 consecutive starts, McDonald got a rude welcome to relief duty. The former ace of the rotation surrendered a screaming line-drive homer to the first man he faced, Justin Maxwell, and faced four others without retiring any.

He plunked Lowrie with a 1-1 pitch, surrendered a run-scoring triple to Brett Wallace, and walked Brian Bogusevic. Then McDonald took a walk himself, leaving the mound in favor of rookie Bryan Morris.

Houston added another run that inning, then Wallace's homer off Hisanori Takahashi in the seventh made it 7-0 before Garrett Jones averted a shutout by pulling his 24th homer in the eighth.

That shot gave the threesome of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Jones a total of 83 homers -- the fifth highest ever for a trio of Pittsburgh players.

"That's a good offense," said DeFrancesco. "Every time we look at the numbers, those guys hit a ton of home runs over there with great power. I'm just glad we got the first one tonight."

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