As members of the National League Central, the Pirates and Astros have met 280 times since 1994. Though the Pirates are an even 71-71 at home in the series, they are just 44-94 at Houston. On Sunday, they will look to add a much-needed victory to that underwhelming record in their final game in Houston as division foes.
"I've always enjoyed my trips to Houston, and have watched some great teams here," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "Selfishly, it sets up our [NL Central] division in a better way, from a competitive standpoint, with a balanced schedule for five teams instead of being the only division with six."
Hurdle will worry about all that next season, though. For now, the Pirates' focus remains on keeping alive their slim playoff chances and at least finishing the season above .500 for the first time since 1992. They are 74-77 entering Sunday's matchup.
Pittsburgh is a Major League-worst 4-16 in September and finds itself 6 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot with 11 games remaining. Veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett will look to get the Pirates back on track for a .500 finish on Sunday, but he'll need some help to do so.
Burnett is winless in six starts since Aug. 16, despite giving his team a chance to win each time. He's allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his last five starts, but the Pirates have managed just eight combined runs in those five contests.
"You can't complain about run support," Burnett said. "I go up there and try to hit, and I can't hardly foul one off, so I know it ain't easy. That's how it works sometimes. So it's out of your hands."
The Astros will counter with right-hander Jordan Lyles, who's had a recurring problem of his own -- the fifth inning. Lyles hasn't pitched into the sixth in any of his last four starts and that's partially due to his fifth-inning struggles.
The 21-year-old has pitched into the fifth in all 23 starts this year, but has a 15.83 ERA in that fifth frame. He's turned in a respectable 3.55 ERA in the other innings combined.
"It's definitely not mental," Lyles said. "After the game, you can say, 'Hey, that's another fifth.' To be honest, when I go out there for the fifth, [the] number five isn't stuck in my head."
Pirates: Karstens could get another start
• Though it wouldn't do much to offset Jeff Karsten's disappointment with how his season has gone, the right-hander could be in line for one more start down the stretch.
Karstens hasn't started a game since his injury-shortened outing on Aug. 31 in which he aggravated the hip pointer that he originally suffered on Aug. 25. He also missed more than two months earlier this season with shoulder inflammation that kept him out from April 17-June 25.
"I would put some of the blame for the way we're playing on myself," Karstens said. "Over the last couple of years, I tried to be one of the guys they can count on every time out, and I haven't been there for my guys.
"It's unfortunate and tough, and something I don't like. I want to help, but when you're hurt, you can't. It's been a very roller-coaster season for me, with all the rehab."
The Pirates' rotation is set for their upcoming four-game series in New York, but Karstens could get the call during the club's season-ending six-game homestand.
"He's been a big part of what we've tried to do here the last two years," Hurdle said. "I want to make sure to honor every opportunity to find a way back for him, outside of just the bullpen work. I'll continue to keep that in sight."
Astros: Gonzalez hopes to make next start
• Despite leaving Friday's contest early after straining his right hamstring, Astros right-hander Edgar Gonzalez hopes to make his scheduled start next Friday in Milwaukee.
Gonzalez, who tweaked his hamstring trying to field a ground ball and left after just 1 2/3 innings, said the injury felt the same Saturday as it did Friday. Interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said the team is in wait-and-see mode with Gonzalez, but added that he's preparing for the possibility of needing a replacement starter.
"He's a little bit sore, which we expected," DeFrancesco said on Saturday. "We'll see how it responds. Nobody really knows how bad it was."
• Lyles is 0-2 with a 9.20 ERA in three starts against the Pirates this season, though he does have 19 strikeouts to just one walk over 14 2/3 innings in those outings.
• Pittsburgh is 11-5 this season against the Astros. The Pirates haven't won 12 or more games against Houston in a single season since 1968, when they won 13 of 18 meetings.