The Astros have gone 3-4 so far on their longest trip of the season, splitting four games with Milwaukee and salvaging a game against Cincinnati with a 7-3 victory over the Reds on Wednesday.
Houston (60-67) is six games behind Cincinnati in the NL wild-card standings, and, despite Wednesday’s win, has lost nine of its past 12 games.
“We lost a lot of ground the last three or four days,” said starter Roy Oswalt, who improved to 16-1 lifetime against Cincinnati on Wednesday. “We’ve got to go to Pittsburgh and pretty much sweep the Pirates.”
Sweeping Pittsburgh (49-78), the worst team in the NL, would be a good way to gain ground on the Reds. The Astros swept the Pirates in three games at home Aug. 8-10 and are 7-2 against Pittsburgh in the season series.
Houston has also won 10 of the past 12 meetings between the teams.
Wandy Rodriguez (9-7, 5.37 ERA) looks to win for the first time in nearly two months when he takes the mound for Houston on Thursday. The left-hander has just one victory since June 11, a 9-5 win over the Rangers on July 2 in which he allowed five runs in 5 1-3 innings.
Since then, Rodriguez has lost both starts he’s made and also came out of the bullpen twice, allowing one run in each of those two appearances.
His struggles led to a demotion to Triple-A Round Rock on July 20 before being recalled on Saturday to start against Milwaukee. He lasted just 3 2-3 innings against the Brewers, allowing three hits and four runs in a 6-4 defeat.
“He lost control,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “He couldn’t throw the ball over the plate.”
Rodriguez is 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA in two starts against Pittsburgh this season and 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA in three career outings versus the Pirates.
Pittsburgh beat Atlanta 5-4 on Wednesday night, taking the last two games of the three-game set and winning only its third road series of the season.
Freddy Sanchez hit a tiebreaking homer in the seventh for the Pirates, who have won nine of their past 13 at PNC Park.
Maholm got hit hard in his last outing, giving up a season-high seven runs and 10 hits in five innings to Cincinnati on Saturday, but didn’t record a decision in the Pirates’ 14-7 loss.
Saturday’s start followed his best outing of the season, when he allowed eight hits in 6 2-3 innings to beat St. Louis 7-0 on Aug. 13.
“For some reason, that first inning again,” said Maholm, who has allowed 28 first-inning runs in 25 starts this season, including 16 in his last eight outings. Maholm’s first-inning ERA now is 9.72. “After I got through that, I wanted to go four or five innings and save the bullpen.”
Maholm is 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in three career starts against Houston, all of them this season.