Pirates-Astros Preview

The Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Pirates are set to open a season-high 10-game road trip in Houston. Two new faces that they're hoping will help get them to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years will join them there.

Former Astros left-hander Wandy Rodriguez will meet his new Pirates teammates and prized prospect Starling Marte is expected to make his major league debut Thursday night in the opener of a four-game set against woeful Houston.

Pittsburgh (55-42), which has not had a winning record or a playoff appearance since 1992, is atop the NL wild-card race and 2 1/2 games back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati. To bolster a solid rotation led by A.J. Burnett (11-3, 3.59 ERA) and James McDonald, the Pirates acquired Rodriguez from the Astros on Tuesday.

The offense, which combined for four runs and 12 hits in a just-completed three-game series with the Chicago Cubs, may receive a boost from the promotion of Marte from Triple-A Indianapolis.

The 23-year-old Marte hit .286 with 12 homers, 21 doubles, 13 triples, 62 RBIs and 21 steals in 99 games for Indianapolis. He is expected to bat leadoff and be Pittsburgh's everyday left fielder.

"He had been on a great roll," general manager Neal Huntington told the Pirates' official website, "so now it will be interesting to see how he responds."

Since June 1, the Pirates are second in the majors in both runs (247) and homers (69), but their left fielders have had little to do with that success. For the season, Pittsburgh's left fielders rank last in the majors in batting (.196) and RBIs (25).

The Pirates have had no such lack of production from their center fielder.

Andrew McCutchen leads the majors with a .369 average and has team highs of 22 homers and 66 RBIs, and is also hitting .565 with two homers, two doubles and five RBIs during Pittsburgh's six-game winning streak over the Astros (34-65).

The Pirates have won 13 of Burnett's last 14 starts with the right-hander posting a 2.84 ERA, but his worst outing in that stretch came against Houston.

He gave up two runs in eight innings of a 3-2, 12-inning win over the Astros on May 13, but in a rematch July 3, he yielded six runs and a season high-tying 12 hits in five-plus innings of a game the Pirates rallied to win 8-7.

Burnett was much sharper in his last start Saturday against Miami, allowing a run in 7 2-3 innings of a 5-1 win.

He'll be facing a Houston team that has plated three runs or fewer in 12 of 14 games, and has lost 22 of 24.

Closer Francisco Cordero coughed up a ninth-inning lead in each of the last two games for the Astros, who've matched a season-worst nine-game losing streak. They haven't lost 10 in a row since May 20-30, 2007.

"We can say we're snake-bitten or whatever, but we've still got to play the game," manager Brad Mills said after Wednesday's 5-3 defeat to Cincinnati.

Mills will now give the ball to Dallas Keuchel (1-2, 4.03), who permitted four runs, seven hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings of a 6-4 loss in Pittsburgh on July 4.

The rookie left-hander was then sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a couple of starts before being recalled Saturday, when he was knocked around for seven runs and seven hits while walking four in 3 1-3 innings of a 12-3 loss to Arizona.

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