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Pirates-Astros Preview

AP - Sports

Once a part of the NL playoff race, the Pittsburgh Pirates are on the verge of hitting a new low.

The major league-worst Houston Astros seek their first sweep in exactly four months when they host the faltering Pirates on Sunday.

Pittsburgh was a season-best 16 games over .500 (63-47) and trailed Cincinnati by 2 1/2 games for the NL Central lead Aug. 8. The Pirates (74-77) then dropped the first two games of a series with Houston and are 11-30 since - tying Cleveland for the worst record in baseball during that span.

They've lost five straight and 13 of 15 following Saturday's 4-1 defeat to drop all but out of contention for the league's second wild card. Pittsburgh, 6 1/2 games behind St. Louis for that spot, needs to go 7-4 the rest of the way just to avoid its 20th consecutive losing season.

The Pirates have scored either one run or none in four of their last five games.

"It's almost like Little League where we need to hit the ball hard where it's pitched and not try to do things that aren't there,'' said manager Clint Hurdle, who was ejected in the second inning Saturday. "We're not crisp and we're not performing the way we need to.''

Pittsburgh, hoping to avoid being the victim of Houston's first sweep since it took all three games against the Chicago Cubs from May 21-23, will send A.J. Burnett to the mound Sunday.

The right-hander has lost four decisions over his last five outings despite a solid 3.68 ERA, receiving four runs of support over 29 1-3 innings during that stretch.

Burnett (15-8, 3.64 ERA), who hasn't won this many games since going 18-10 for Toronto in 2008, gave up two runs in six innings of a 6-0 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday.

He pitched well in his last start versus the Astros, allowing two runs in 7 1-3 innings of a 5-3 victory July 26.

Houston (50-102) has won five of its last six at home after Jason Castro hit a tie-breaking three-run homer in the seventh Saturday, and will seek its third sweep of the season when Jordan Lyles takes the hill.

Like Burnett, Lyles (4-11, 5.40) hasn't received much run support of late, including when he gave up five runs - four earned - in 4 2-3 innings of a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 4.

The Astros have scored three runs with Lyles on the mound over his last three starts, with the right-hander going 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA in that stretch.

He allowed four runs and struck out six in five innings of Houston's 7-6 win over Philadelphia last Sunday.

"He needs to learn how to be a winning pitcher, and the only way to do that is to give us a chance to win every time he pitches,'' interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. ''If he can do that, his win/losses will turn around the other way.''

Lyles is 0-3 with a 7.97 ERA in four career starts versus the Pirates, including three this season. Andrew McCutchen is 7 for 11 with three doubles off Lyles, while Garrett Jones is 5 for 10 with two homers and a double.

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