Following the worst season in franchise history in 2011, the Houston Astros are showing definite signs of improvement during their final National League campaign.
Coming off a successful start to their five-game road trip, the Astros will try to make it two straight wins over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday night at PNC Park.
The Astros went 56-106 for the worst record in the major leagues last year, and 2012 was expected to be another long season as Houston fields a very young roster.
However, the Astros have been competitive thanks in part to an improved bullpen. Three relievers combined to allow one hit over the final three innings after Bud Norris scattered three hits through six in Friday's 1-0 win.
''There's a lot of good arms down there, a lot of good guys, a lot of good pitchers,'' Astros manager Brad Mills said. ''They're working well together.''
Astros relievers have a 2.70 ERA this year, down from an NL-worst 4.49 ERA in 2011.
"We're battling each time, and it gives us confidence we can play with any team," closer Brett Myers (nine saves in nine chances) told the Astros' official website. "With the way we've been playing baseball and the way we've been going out there and fighting and grinding out at-bats, these guys are starting to believe in themselves, and definitely everybody else around them starts to believe in them. We need to keep grinding."
Houston and Pittsburgh (14-18) each managed four hits Friday. The Astros scored their lone run in the second when Brian Bogusevic came home as Justin Maxwell grounded into a double play.
Pittsburgh wasted a strong pitching performance from James McDonald, who fanned eight in eight innings. Rod Barajas had two hits for the Pirates, who dropped to 3-4 on their nine-game homestand.
J.A. Happ (2-2, 5.24 ERA), who is scheduled to start for Houston, will be looking for his first career win in Pittsburgh. In four career starts at PNC Park, Happ is 0-2 with a 3.24 ERA.
Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen has enjoyed tremendous success in his four-year career against Happ, batting .364 (8 for 22) with three doubles and a homer. McCutchen was 0 for 4 Friday after going 7 for 12 in his previous four games.
The same cannot be said for Jose Tabata and Garrett Jones. Tabata his hitting .077 (1 for 13) with four strikeouts and Jones is batting .067 (1 for 15) and has fanned three times when facing the right-hander.
Jones, whose lone hit off Happ was a homer, was hitless in two at-bats while Tabata had a triple Friday.
Happ is coming off his poorest outing of 2012 after surrendering six runs and four walks – both season highs – over five innings of Houston's 8-1 loss to St. Louis on Sunday.
After being lit up while losing each of his two previous starts, Charlie Morton (1-3, 4.61) will take the mound for the Pirates.
Morton had allowed six runs in 17 innings over three starts last month. In May, though, it's been a different story as the right-hander has been tagged for 11 runs – nine earned – in 10 1-3 innings.
He gave up five runs over seven innings in Sunday's 5-0 loss to Cincinnati.
While winning a career-high 10 games last year, Morton was 2-2 with a 4.63 ERA in four starts against Houston. Carlos Lee went 4 for 12 with a triple against him and Jose Altuve's only hit in three trips to the plate was his second career homer.
Batting third for the first time in his career Friday, Altuve went 0 for 3 to drop his average to .325. Altuve is 0 for 8 in his last two games.