While it hasn't helped them too much in the NL Central race, a series with the woeful Houston Astros has helped put the Pittsburgh Pirates on the brink of matching their longest win streak of the season.
The Pirates will try to earn that fifth straight win, record their first four-game sweep in Houston in nearly three decades and extend the Astros' franchise-worst skid to 13 on Sunday afternoon.
Pittsburgh (58-42) hasn't made much of a dent in its division deficit largely because NL Central-leading Cincinnati has reeled off nine consecutive victories. The Pirates still trail the Reds by two games after rallying for a 4-3 win over the MLB-worst Astros (34-68) on Saturday night.
James McDonald (10-4, 3.15 ERA) will try to deliver Pittsburgh's first four-game sweep in Houston since April 7-10, 1983, and its second five-game win streak this season. The Pirates had their other such run from July 17-22 before suffering back-to-back losses to Chicago.
McDonald played a large part in the latter of those defeats Tuesday by allowing five runs over six innings. He's 1-1 with an 8.62 ERA over his last three starts.
"I had pretty decent command. They just hit the ball when they needed to," McDonald told the team's website. "This is a loss I can live with. I competed, went out there and gave everything I had. I had good stuff. They got me today."
The right-hander has a 1.59 ERA over his past four matchups with Houston, including two this season, but has a 2-2 record in those games with zero runs of support in each of the two losses. He was on the wrong end of a 1-0 result May 11 in Pittsburgh but earned the win in an 11-2 rout July 2 at PNC Park.
This time, he'll face a team that has only two wins over its last 27 games, has dropped seven in a row at home and nine straight in the series. The Astros have been outscored 152-73 during that 2-25 stretch.
"We can sit here and probably try to pick things apart as best we can on all kinds of issues," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "But we've been facing some good pitchers in tough situations."
Lucas Harrell (7-7, 4.07) will try to stop his team's downward spiral with another top-notch outing. The right-hander has allowed one run in each of his last three starts but has been given a combined two runs of support.
The Astros led 2-1 when Harrell exited after the seventh inning of Tuesday's game against Cincinnati but reliever Francisco Cordero gave up three runs in the final frame of a 4-2 defeat.
"I am disappointed because he should have gotten a 'W,'" Cordero told the team's website. "(Harrell) pitched too good of a game to go home with a no-decision."
Harrell tied a career high with nine strikeouts during his only start against Pittsburgh on July 3 but also gave up five runs over five innings and did not get a decision in an 8-7 road loss.
He hasn't given up more than one run in any of his five other outings since June 17.