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07/16/10 11:38 PM ET

Duke gets little support in return from DL

Left-hander allows two runs, fans five over five innings

PITTSBURGH -- For all the talk about starting fresh out of the All-Star break, the Pirates looked very much like the team that hobbled to a 30-58 first-half record as they returned to the field on Friday.

Fundamentals weren't sound. The offense was largely absent. And particular areas of deficiency continued to be exploited, this time by an Astros team that is now unbeaten in seven games against Pittsburgh this season.

In fact, the only glaring positive from the Pirates' 5-2 loss to the Astros in front of 23,273 at PNC Park was Zach Duke's successful return from a near month-long stay on the disabled list. Otherwise, this loss -- which sunk the Pirates to their third seven-game losing streak of the season -- was entirely forgettable.

"Not the game you're looking for anytime of the year," manager John Russell said. "A few too many mistakes. Some mental lapses. Again, we've got to take some heat off those mistakes by scoring some runs."

And that, they didn't. The Pirates began the second half with the Majors' lowest team batting average (.235) and having scored the fewest runs (284), and those issues were only further compounded by the end of the night.

After collecting just one hit in their final game against the Astros last week, the club managed just five against starter Brett Myers, who went 7 2/3 innings deep. A string of 11 hitless innings against Houston was broken up by Andrew McCutchen's fourth-inning double. He moved up on a groundout and came home on a sacrifice fly to put the Pirates on the scoreboard.

A pair of two-out singles accounted for the club's only other hits until the eighth.

"He was just pounding the strike zone and was able to throw all of his pitches for strikes," Lastings Milledge said. "That made it a little difficult for us."

"He really didn't throw two pitches in a row the same," Russell added. "That's going to be tough on anybody."

The outcome would have looked more lopsided, too, if Pittsburgh hadn't scratched for three hits and a run in the eighth to at least make things interesting. Neil Walker, at the plate as the potential tying run, flew out to end that threat.

"I'm just trying to do my job, not really trying to go out there and overpower guys or anything like that," Myers said. "I'm just trying to throw strikes and get the guys in the dugout as quick as possible."

A mostly silent offense was hardly the only issue, though.

There was Andy LaRoche getting picked off at second by catcher Humberto Quintero when he strayed too far away from the bag in the sixth. That ended an opportune chance -- Walker was at the plate with runners on first and second and two out -- to chip away at what was a three-run deficit

There was Ronny Cedeno unwisely holding onto the ball during a rundown that eventually resulted in Hunter Pence diving back to first safely. Instead of having the inning end on a pick-off play, Duke was forced to throw a few more pitches.

There were two more balls that squirted past catcher Ryan Doumit, though both were ruled wild pitches. And there were continued consequences because of an inability to throw out basestealers.

The latter cost the Pirates, too, when, after leading off the game with a grounder that hardly made it halfway up the third-base line, Houston's Jason Bourgeois swiped second and third to put himself in position to score on a one-out groundout.

For a club struggling to compile victories and laboring to score runs, these seemingly minor lapses rapidly add up.

"We can't sit here and say those are the keys to the game because we had other innings to score runs and put us in position to win the ballgame," Milledge said. "It's more than mental errors. We've got to start putting together runs early in the game because if you put together runs early in the game, everything is not so scrutinized."

But when a team has won just 10 of its past 43 games, it's hard for mistakes not to become magnified.

The one bit of relief Friday came from Duke's performance, which lasted five innings and 78 pitches. Duke wasn't on a strict pitch count, but there was an obvious effort not to overexert the left-hander. He threw just 54 pitches in the more recent of his two Minor League rehab starts.

"He had done what he needed to do," Russell said. "You could tell he was starting to labor there a little bit toward the end. For his first time back, I thought he threw the ball pretty well. I think it's something he can build off of to get some momentum for his next start."

Duke gave up that first-inning run even though he didn't allow a ball out of the infield. A two-out double in the second plated Houston's second run against him. The Astros had just two singles off Duke in his final three frames.

"I felt good," he said. "I felt like I was commanding the ball pretty well. I felt like the stuff was crisp. The curveball was good. The changeup was good. The fastball was down."

The left-hander didn't walk a batter for only the third time in his 15 starts this year, and he finished with five strikeouts.

Furthermore, and as critical as any specific statistic, Duke ended the night feeling healthy. There were no issues with his left elbow, which had been the point of injury that landed Duke on the disabled list in mid-June.

"I feel like I can build off this for sure," said Duke, now 3-9 on the year.

The Pirates trailed, 2-1, when Duke exited, only to see that deficit balloon to four runs after the Astros scored twice off Pirates reliever D.J. Carrasco and once against Sean Gallagher in the seventh.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.