PITTSBURGH (AP)—If the Houston Astros need advice about handling a poor start, perhaps they should ask the Pittsburgh Pirates. A team accustomed to falling far behind early in a season and never catching up, the Pirates are showing a few encouraging signs of improvement.
Duke limited the struggling Astros to four hits in his third career shutout and LaRoche homered during a five-run third inning, helping the Pirates extend Houston’s losing streak to five games with a 7-0 victory Monday.
Freddy Sanchez had three doubles, two of them starting run-scoring innings, and the normally slow-starting LaRoche had three hits as the Pirates won their home opener for the first time since 2004.
“It was fabulous, fabulous,” said leadoff hitter Nyjer Morgan, who contributed a run-scoring single in the third. “We’re playing hard and getting some results.”
OK, so the Pirates are a modest 4-3, but they’ve seen enough to believe they can begin to turn themselves around this year following 16 consecutive losing seasons.
“It’s definitely a different feeling in here,” LaRoche said. “It’s like J.R. (manager John Russell) said, what you need to do as a team is put yourself in position to win, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
And it’s not what the Astros are doing. Off to their worst start since 1984, when they also were 1-6, they held a postgame meeting with general manager Ed Wade and manager Cecil Cooper.
They were shut out for the second day in a row—they lost 3-0 Sunday in St. Louis to complete a three-game Cardinals sweep—and have scored in only one of their last 28 innings, getting two runs in the ninth inning of an 11-2 loss in St. Louis on Saturday. They’re not hitting (.234 team batting average) or pitching (6.45 team ERA).
“It’s us. It’s not what they’re doing,” Cooper said, referring to opposing pitchers. “It’s what we’re doing to ourselves. We’re getting ourselves out, we’re not putting ourselves in good situations and not swinging at good pitches.”
Duke (2-0), coming off a 5-14 season, followed up a 7-4 win at St. Louis on Wednesday in which he gave up one earned run in 6 1-3 innings by pitching even better, striking out five and walking two while throwing 120 pitches. Duke’s shutout was the first by a Pirates pitcher in a home opener since John Candelaria beat the Cubs 1-0 on April 7, 1978.
“I can throw my pitches when I want to right now,” said Duke, who lost 10 of his final 11 decisions last season. “I’m healthy and I’m right where I want to be.”
The Pirates bounced back from a 2-0 loss to the Reds and Aaron Harang on Sunday with plenty of offense from two players who got off to bad starts a season ago.
Sanchez, hitting in the .220s until batting .346 after the All-Star break last season, doubled with one out in the first and scored on Ryan Doumit’s single off Brian Moehler (0-2), who allowed five runs and seven hits over 2 1-3 innings in his second straight rough outing. Moehler has a 27.00 ERA and has lasted only four innings in two starts.
LaRoche went 3-for-4—a rare good day in April for a batter who came into the game with the third-worst career batting average (.177) in the month of any National League hitter since 1900, based on 300 plate appearances. Only Dal Maxvill (.174) and Clete Boyer (.175) had lower April averages.
Moehler was lifted with a sprained right knee after giving up Sanchez’s second double in three innings, Nate McLouth’s RBI single and LaRoche’s homer into the right-field seats in the third. Moehler will have an MRI exam on Tuesday.
“It’s in a bad spot, it’s my push-off leg and I’m just not able to drive the ball like I would like to,” Moehler said. “It presents a problem when you’re a pitcher.”
Doumit added a solo homer in the eighth for the Pirates, who have been either very good or very bad at the plate so far. They have 30 runs and 54 hits in their four wins and four runs and nine hits in their three losses.
The Pirates wore replica Pittsburgh Police Department caps in honor of the three policemen who were shot to death April 4. They also wore a police department uniform patch. … Steve Blass threw out the ceremonial first pitch in honor of his 50 seasons with the club as a pitcher and broadcaster. … The start was delayed 12 minutes by lengthy pregame ceremonies. … The Pirates had lost six of eight home openers since moving into PNC Park in 2001. … Houston’s Lance Berkman is off to a 4-for-24 start (.167). … Duke pitched his fifth career complete game.