Houston (44-40) at Pittsburgh (35-46)

Cloudy Currently: Pittsburgh, PA
Temp: 30° F
  • Game info: 4:05 pm EDT Fri Jul 4, 2003
Preview | Box Score | Recap

Since Pittsburgh Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon challenged Kris Benson to pitch like the ace he is supposed to be, the right-hander has continued to struggle mightily.

But both McClendon and Benson feel they have reasons to be optimistic.

Coming off one of his best starts of the season, Benson looks to notch his first victory in more than a month when the Pirates open a three-game series against the Houston Astros at PNC Park.

Benson, the No. 1 overall selection in the 1996 draft and the Pirates’ opening day starter this season, opened the year 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in his first two starts. But he has gone 3-8 with a 5.91 ERA in his last 13 outings and has been even worse over his last seven starts, going 1-4 with an 8.90 ERA

However, in Saturday’s 5-4 loss to Colorado, in which he allowed five runs— one earned—and six hits over five innings, Benson felt stronger than he had in years.

“I was a lot more down in the zone and I felt a lot more strength,” said Benson, who missed the entire 2001 season after having ligament transplant surgery. “My velocity was more consistent. It was a lot better than it had been in the past.”

Since McClendon criticized Benson for not living up to his potential following a 6-2 loss to Houston on May 15, Benson is just 1-3 with a 7.08 ERA and has yielded 51 hits in 34 1-3 innings.

Yet, McClendon has seen signs that Benson is poised to begin living up to expectations.

“Kris’ stuff was outstanding,” McClendon said of Saturday’s performance. “His velocity was exceptional.

“He had problems pitching in a little bit but I was pleased with the way he competed.”

Pittsburgh held off Cincinnati’s third comeback attempt in as many nights Thursday, and Matt Stairs hit two-run homers in consecutive at-bats as the Pirates salvaged the finale of their three-game series against the Reds with an 8-7 win.

The Astros took two of three from the Milwaukee Brewers with Thursday’s 7-3 victory, as Jeff Bagwell and Geoff Blum each hit three-run homers.

Bagwell, who has four home runs over his last 15 games after enduring a 35-game homerless drought, is just five shy of 400 for his career.

STANDINGS: Astros - 1st place (tied), NL Central. Pirates - 5th place, 7 1/2 GB, NL Central.

ASTROS PROBABLE STARTER: Ron Villone (0-0, 2.45 ERA). The Astros purchased Villone’s contract from Triple-A New Orleans on June 15, and he became the team’s 10th starting pitcher this season. The former Pirate, who was 3-1 with a 1.23 ERA at New Orleans, has allowed just five runs over his three starts. The left-hander yielded three runs and three hits over six innings of Houston’s 6-5 loss to Texas on Sunday, striking out a season-high seven and walking two. Villone is 2-2 with a 4.75 ERA in 18 career appearances, including six starts, against Pittsburgh.

PIRATES PROBABLE STARTER: Benson (5-8, 5.04 ERA). Benson has struggled over his 12 career starts against the Astros, going 2-7 with a 4.80 ERA.

OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Astros - Richard Hidalgo, .321 avg.; Morgan Ensberg, 15 HRs; Jeff Kent, 50 RBIs; Lance Berkman, 54 runs; Adam Everett, 6 SBs. Pirates - Brian Giles, .313 avg.; Reggie Sanders, 13 HRs; Aramis Ramirez, 47 RBIs; Kenny Lofton, 51 runs and 15 SBs.

SEASON SERIES: Astros, 7-1.

STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - INF Blum is batting .364 with one double, two homers and four RBIs in 11 career at-bats against RHP Benson. … 3B Ensberg is hitting .341 (28-for-82) over his last 29 games with 10 homers, 22 RBIs and 22 runs scored. … The Astros signed LHP Mike Venafro to a minor league contract and assigned him to Triple-A New Orleans. Venafro was released last week by Tampa Bay. Pirates - OF Stairs is batting .457 (16-for-35) with 14 extra-base hits, including eight of his nine homers, and 17 RBIs in 21 games since coming off the DL on June 10. … Of the Pirates’ 46 losses, 15 occurred when they were ahead or tied after six innings—only one fewer than they had all last season. … CF Lofton sat out a second straight game Thursday with a strained right calf. His status for Friday’s game remains uncertain.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 19-23 on the road; Pirates - 16-26 at home.

INJURIES: Astros - INF Kent (shoulder), 15-day DL; INF Jose Vizcaino (wrist), 15-day DL; LHP Carlos Hernandez (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Roy Oswalt (groin), 15-day DL; RHP Rodrigo Rosario (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Brian Moehler (elbow), 60-day DL. Pirates - CF Lofton (calf), day-to-day; INF Randall Simon (hand), 15-day DL; INF Pat Meares (hand), 60-day DL; INF Pokey Reese (thumb), 60-day DL; LHP Dave Williams (shoulder), 60-day DL.

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Starting Pitchers

R. Villone Was vs. K. Benson Ari
6-6 Record 5-9
4.13 ERA 4.97
91 K 68
48 BB 36
1.30 WHIP 1.55