PITTSBURGH -- It was one of the challenges that manager Clint Hurdle laid out in the early days of Spring Training, a challenge that was designed to get the attention of his starting pitchers. Hurdle wanted one starter's success to infect the rest of the rotation.

That concept of piggybacking on strong starts is something the Pirates executed beautifully in their recent series win over the Astros. Though only one of the three won, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and James McDonald strung together three quality starts. The Pirates won two of the three games, with the only loss coming because of a bullpen meltdown.

In the three games, the starters combined to throw 21 innings and allowed just two runs and 15 hits.

"They are so into watching the other guy pitch. All of them," Hurdle said. "You hear people talk about hitting being contagious all the time. I think that happens with your starting pitchers. Nobody wants to drop the baton."

With his six shutout innings on Sunday, McDonald helped lower the rotation's ERA over the past seven games to 2.79. The club is 14-9 this year when a starter goes at least six innings, and a year after accruing only 34 wins as a group, the starters have already won 13.

"It's been huge," first baseman Steve Pearce said. "With the way our pitchers have been throwing, we have a chance every single day."

Resop's last two outings a head-scratcher

PITTSBURGH -- While unwavering in his belief that his past two appearances are not a reason for long-term concern, Chris Resop did nothing to sugarcoat how disgusted he was with his inability to record an out in an eighth-inning appearance on Friday and then again in his outing on Sunday vs. the Astros.

"It's embarrassing -- both games," said Resop. "We should have swept these guys, no questions asked. We should be a game above .500, not fighting for .500. The team busts its butt all game and then gives the ball over to you with the confidence that Resop is going to get through this inning. These guys work hard all day and then you come in and you almost feel like you give up on your team. You let them down."

Two days after surrendering the tying and go-ahead run in an eventual 6-1 Astros win, Resop headed back to the mound on Sunday, this time with a two-run lead. He gave it all back -- and more. All three batters reached and scored, as Houston took its first lead of the game. Only a Ryan Doumit three-run homer bailed Resop out of another loss.

These past two outings have been an aberration in Resop's season. He earned the chance to be the Pirates' setup reliever in Evan Meek's absence because of how good he had been. Resop had only been scored upon twice in his first 14 appearances and had gotten his teammates out of plenty of jams.

"I went from throwing the ball real well to a couple of bad outings," Resop said. "What separates you from the rest is how you can get over it. It's the mental toughness of it. I haven't lost confidence in myself. You don't go from throwing the ball well to two outings and then thinking you're not good. That's not how it works. You don't lose the tools. You don't lose the stuff. You don't lose the ability. You've got to mentally grind it out."

Resop said that mechanically, little is out of whack. Besides making sure he keeps his head straighter through his delivery, there really isn't any tweaking needed. The fix is simple: Keep the ball down.

"My stuff is good, and I feel like my stuff is getting better every outing, to be honest with you," Resop said. "My velocity is starting to go up. The last couple of outings, it has been higher than it has been all year. I have better command of my breaking ball. I have better feel for my stuff. I've just been leaving my fastball up a little bit."

Hurdle has club practice bunt defense

PITTSBURGH -- Had it not been for Ryan Doumit's go-ahead homer in the eighth on Sunday, the Pirates were looking at the possibility of losing their second game in less than a week, largely because of the team's inability to execute its bunt defense properly.

Though the club avoided the loss, it didn't stop manger Clint Hurdle from ushering his pitchers, infielders and catchers onto the PNC Park field Monday afternoon to review the Pirates' different bunt defenses.

"That's maddening right now," Hurdle said of the mistakes. "That's been one of our biggest concerns coming out. We worked so hard in Spring Training, and it has definitely not been Major League average or acceptable through this part of the season. We've just got to do a better job at it. It has definitely cost us a couple different times."

The Astros executed their run-scoring bunt play by, first, taking advantage of the fact that Pirates reliever Daniel McCutchen wasn't paying much attention to catcher Humberto Quintero, who had just doubled. That allowed Quintero to get a jump to third before Angel Sanchez even laid down the bunt.

When Sanchez did, second baseman Neil Walker hesitated to cover first. That forced third baseman Brandon Wood to hold on to the ball a bit longer, and Sanchez reached safely. Quintero never stopped running either, and he made it home before Walker's throw to Doumit.

"We were able to address three specific areas on what we need to be doing," Hurdle said. "I think it just caught everybody off guard. The downside is, we just hadn't had that play. It caught us completely unaware. Now it's something that we understand can happen anytime."

Ascanio makes final rehab appearance

PITTSBURGH -- Jose Ascanio made his final rehab appearance with Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday night. He last pitched in the Majors in August 2009, but his right shoulder issues appear to finally be behind him.

Pitchers are allowed to remain on a rehab assignment with Minor League clubs for up to 30 days, and Ascanio's time will officially end on Tuesday. That means the Pirates must decide this week where they want to assign the 26-year-old right-hander.

Because Ascanio is out of options, the Pirates would not be able to assign him to Triple-A until he clears waivers. The other option is to have Ascanio join the Pirates' bullpen, which appears to be the likeliest move.

Ascanio's outing on Monday was supposed to last two innings. However, Ascanio did not come out for the second after needing 31 pitches to finish the first. The right-hander allowed two runs (one earned) on two hits and one walk. He struck out two.

After making his three appearances with Class A Bradenton, Ascanio logged 9 1/3 innings with Indianapolis. He allowed seven earned runs, struck out five and walked four.

"Velocity-wise, he has been up to 96 [mph], maybe 97," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's shown a good slider. He's been somewhat inconsistent. We have challenged him to get two-inning outings, because that's probably what his role would be up here."

Some other Minor League notes:

• Jameson Taillon allowed one run in a five-inning start for low Class A West Virginia on Sunday. The start was the longest of Taillon's three professional outings so far. Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, allowed three hits and struck out five. He did not walk a batter.

• Right-hander Brad Lincoln had a second straight strong start for Indianapolis. Lincoln picked up the win on Sunday, scattering six hits and two walks in six innings. Lincoln allowed one run and struck out seven.

• In that Indianapolis game, outfielder Alex Presley added three hits to his International League-leading total of 43. Presley also drove in one and scored twice in the win.

Bucs bits

• Evan Meek (right shoulder tendinitis) continued his long-toss program on Monday by extending himself from a distance of 150 feet. Meek, who is eligible to come off the disabled list as early as Thursday, is expected to resume throwing off a mound soon.
• With his go-ahead home run on Sunday, Ryan Doumit now ranks third among all Pirates catchers with 50 homers. Only Jason Kendall (66) and Tony Pena (63) have hit more in a Pittsburgh uniform.
• Joel Hanrahan recorded his 10th save of the season on Sunday, a new career high for saves in a season. Hanrahan saved nine games for Washington in 2008. He had six with the Pirates last season and has not blown a save this year.
• The Pirates entered Monday's game against the Dodgers having won back-to-back games four times this season. However, they have not yet put together a winning streak of more than three games.