The Astros (31-29) opened their trip with promise on May 27, beating St. Louis 8-2 while getting 12 hits as Hunter Pence went 5-for-5.
They failed to build on that, winning only once in the next seven contests while getting outscored 33-10 and hitting .208. That stretch has seen Pence go 4-for-24 (.167) with no RBIs and seven strikeouts, dropping his batting average from a season-high .311 to .294.
Houston did manage 10 hits Tuesday, and beat Pittsburgh 2-0 in the series opener despite leaving 11 runners on base. The Astros followed with another subpar offensive display Wednesday with eight hits—only one for extra bases— in a 5-2 loss.
“Keep running them out there, that’s all you can do,” Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. “You can only do so much hitting in the cage. Sooner or later, things will start clicking. That’s how we started the year, this way. Two-to-three weeks in, we figured it out, and we started hitting. They’ll get it going.”
While Miguel Tejada is in a 1-for-19 slump, Lance Berkman has gone 11-for-29 (.379) on the trip but has only one homer and two RBIs. The All-Star first baseman, who is 3-for-8 with an RBI during this series, is second in the majors with a .384 batting average and among the NL leaders with 17 homers and 48 RBIs.
Berkman, though, is 1-for-10 against Pittsburgh’s Paul Maholm, Thursday’s scheduled starter.
The Pirates (28-31), who have rotated wins and losses over the last seven games, hope Maholm (3-5, 4.74 ERA) can help them pull out of the NL Central basement. They are one-half game behind the fifth-place Cincinnati Reds, who face Philadelphia.
Maholm is coming off an impressive performance, allowing one run and four hits with five strikeouts in 6 2-3 innings of a 14-4 win at St. Louis on Saturday. The victory came after the left-hander went 0-3 with a 6.89 ERA in his previous five starts.
“I think that for me, personally, it was a confidence booster going out there (Saturday) and pitching well,” Maholm told the team’s official Web site.
Maholm is 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in four home starts against the Astros, compared to 0-3 with a 13.89 ERA in three games at Houston.
The Astros will counter with Brandon Backe (4-6, 4.54), who is looking to continue his dominance of the Pirates while rebounding from a disappointing start.
The right-hander is 4-0 with a 1.73 ERA in his last four starts against the Pirates, including two wins at Pittsburgh. However, he hasn’t started a game there since Sept. 22, 2005.
Backe wasn’t nearly as effective at Milwaukee on Friday, giving up five runs and six hits—including three homers—in five innings of a 5-1 loss.
“I felt like I had pretty good stuff, I just couldn’t get guys out,” said Backe, who had won his previous two starts. “I had no putout pitches.”
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