Pirates 8, Astros 3

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—General manager Dave Littlefield and manager Lloyd McClendon disagree whether the Pittsburgh Pirates are truly in contention to win their division.

What isn’t in dispute is it’s early July and the Pirates, usually long since out of it, still are hanging around in the crowded NL Central race.

Aramis Ramirez hit one of Pittsburgh’s three homers and drove in four runs to support Jeff D’Amico’s four-hitter as the Pirates finished off a three-game sweep of slumping Houston, winning 8-3 Sunday.

“They’ve got good hitters and they’re hitting the ball right now,” Astros manager Jimy Williams said.

Ramirez hit a three-run drive to chase Wade Miller (5-9), who allowed 11 hits and seven runs in 5 2-3 innings as the Astros dropped their ninth in 12 games.

Abraham Nunez got the Pirates going with a two-run double in the second and Brian Giles and Craig Wilson hit solo homers an inning later to make it 4-0. The Pirates have won four straight since Cincinnati rallied in the late innings to beat them on consecutive nights Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Pirates hadn’t swept the Astros in a three-game series since May 28-30, 1999. The Astros had won 39 of 60 against Pittsburgh since, including seven of eight this season, before the weekend sweep.

Asked to elaborate about the Pirates’ sudden turnaround against his club, Williams said, “Every dog has his day.”

Despite winning seven of 10 to close within 6 1/2 games of the NL Central lead, the Pirates are eight games under .500 and have the NL’s third-worst record. They trail four teams in the NL Central.

That’s why, when McClendon says his team is back in it, Littlefield takes a more cautious approach.

“Being (eight) games under .500 doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling about being in the race,” Littlefield said. “In certain areas we’re performing better than last year … but another general manager in another city with a team (eight) games under .500 wouldn’t consider his team in the race.

“Part of my job is to balance the good and the bad and be realistic.”

Almost everything was good Sunday for the Pirates. They hadn’t had a complete game in 170 games until Jeff Suppan shut out Colorado on June 29, only to have D’Amico give them their second complete game in as many Sundays.

D’Amico (6-8) had lost four of five decisions since May 21 before limiting the Astros to one hit in the first five innings and four overall. He struck out three and walked one while needing just 90 pitches.

“Ninety pitches was remarkable; you just don’t see that very often any more,” McClendon said. “You had the feeling early on this was going to be his day.”

In two winning starts against Houston this season, D’Amico has allowed three runs and eight hits in 16 innings. Lance Berkman hit a solo homer off D’Amico with two outs in the ninth, his 15th homer.

D’Amico also singled twice for the first two-hit game of his career. Despite his 6-8 record, he has a 3.87 ERA and hasn’t missed a start despite a history of physical problems.

“I think I’m throwing the ball a little better than the numbers say,” D’Amico said. “I just hope I’ll continue to keep us in games.”

Ramirez made two more errors at third base, his 19th and 20th of the season, but made up for them with his three-run drive in the sixth, which followed Kenny Lofton’s double and Jason Kendall’s single. Ramirez’s homer was his eighth and his first since homering in consecutive games June 20-21.

Ramirez also made an outstanding play in the field, backhanding Morgan Ensberg’s hard-hit ball down the line in the seventh. Ramirez quickly stepped on third to force a runner, then made a twisting turn and throw to first to complete the double play.

“You can’t think about that (making an error), you’ve got to get that out of your mind when you’re hitting,” Ramirez said. “We’re starting to pick itup. Everybody is swinging the bats well and we’re pitching well.”


Pittsburgh has won 13 of 20 since dropping six straight. … Since losing 21 of their first 28 home games, the Pirates have won 11 of 16 at home. … The Astros’ Geoff Blum has at least one hit in each of his seven starts since replacing the injured Jeff Kent at 2B. Blum had four hits in the final two games of the series. … Houston is 8-9-1 in its 18 series and has been swept four times. The Astros have been swept three times in the last month: June 13-15 at Boston, June 23-25 at Arizona and the Pittsburgh series. … Wilson’s homer was his fourth and first since June 1. … After the game, the Astros optioned reliever Brandon Puffer to Triple-A New Orleans to free up a roster spot for Roy Oswalt, who will come off the disabled list to pitch Mondayagainst Cincinnati.

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