MLB Insiders: Houston Astros

The Pirates open a three-game series with Houston on Monday at PNC Park. Lefty Paul Maholm will be on the hill for the Bucs. The Astros will toss right-hander Brett Myers.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off their best offensive output since providing starter Paul Maholm with solid run support more than a month ago.

Maholm surely would welcome a similar performance Monday when Pittsburgh tries to move three games over .500 for the first time in 12 years against the visiting Houston Astros.

The Pirates (43-41) routed Washington 10-2 on Sunday, matching a season high for runs scored set May 20 and equaled May 28. Maholm (4-9, 3.17 ERA) pitched his only shutout this season in the second occurrence, beating the Chicago Cubs.

The left-hander, though, hasn't received much offense in his other outings. Pittsburgh has scored three or fewer runs for Maholm in 14 of his 17 starts. His 3.08 run support average is near the bottom of the NL while his ERA ranks in the top 20.

Maholm is 3-2 with a 2.53 ERA in his last seven starts, allowing two or fewer runs in five of them. He gave up two runs in seven innings Wednesday in a 2-1 loss against Toronto.

Pittsburgh is 0-8 this season when having a chance to move three games over the .500 mark for the first time since it was 40-37 on July 1, 1999. If the Pirates are to finally get over the hump, they'll have to overcome Houston starter Brett Myers (3-7, 4.60), who has had success against Pittsburgh in recent outings.

Myers is 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA in his last five starts against the Pirates, allowing two runs or less in four of those outings.

The right-hander is yet to lose on the road, going 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA in three starts. However, Myers lost his latest outing after allowing three runs in seven innings Wednesday in a 3-2 defeat against Texas.

That loss is part of a miserable stretch for the major league-worst Astros (29-56) in which they've lost 11 of 13. Houston fell 2-1 to Boston on Sunday to cap a three-game sweep.

Hunter Pence learned of his second All-Star appearance in three years Sunday and felt a particular pride in being selected by his peers.

"It's a great honor; it's very humbling," Pence said prior to the Astros' 2-1 loss to the Red Sox on Sunday. "It feels good to get in whichever way you can get in and to have the players vote me in, I'm very grateful."

It comes at a tough time for Pence and the Astros, who just finished a 1-8 homestand, getting wiped out by the American League's elite, the Rays, Rangers and Red Sox. So perhaps not surprisingly, he is the only Astros player named to the team as Michael Bourn's strong case perhaps materialized too late.

Pence leads all National League outfielders with 104 hits despite missing five games with an elbow strain in June. He is also second among NL outfielders in batting average and at the top in doubles. Pence complements the .322 average with a .363 on-base percentage and a .497 slugging percentage, a team-leading 10 home runs and 57 runs batted in.

Pence, who was 17th in the fan voting for the starting outfield spots, was sixth in player balloting. Though there were only three spots given to player vote winners, since Lance Berkman, Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun had already made it as fan vote winners, Matt Holliday, Jay Bruce and Pence were all selected.

Now the key is getting in the game. Pence was selected in 2009, but NL manager Charlie Manuel never found a spot to use him.

"It would be very nice to get in the game," Pence said. "Last time I went in '09 and didn't get to play, it's kind of an empty feeling a little bit.

"I've faced all these pitchers, so I'll see what I can do on that stage. It's definitely a different atmosphere and different energy. We'll see, whatever happens, I'll be ready to play if they want me to play."

Notes, Quotes

RHP Jordan Lyles admitted that his five-walk, five-inning performance isn't going to let him escape with only an earned run allowed most days. "Too many pitches and not enough innings: it's not a recipe for success," said Lyles, who had walked just eight in his first 36 career innings. The 20-year-old rookie still seeks his first major league win, remaining 0-3 in his first seven starts.

RHP Mark Melancon took the loss Sunday, walking in a run after he had intentionally walked Adrian Gonzalez to get to Kevin Youkilis, who walked on five pitches. "There's no doubt that's not an easy decision, but you're looking at these guys and put everything together and if we are going to get beat there, that's who we want to get beat by in that situation," manager Brad Mills said. "Just look at the season that Gonzalez is having and if we're going to get beat then I don't want to get beat with him in that situation."

CF Michael Bourn had been thinking he had a shot at being an All-Star with his .294 batting average and league-leading 35 stolen bases, but he did not hear his name called. "You always think you have a shot but the cookie crumbles the other way sometimes, so you have to take it and roll with it," Bourn said. "That's just the way it is."

RF Hunter Pence said it's time for the Astros to "face the music," as the team leader and newly-minted All-Star admitted this has been a representation of a game of failure at 29-56. "This is a season that's really going to bring out a lot of manhood in me and in all of us," Pence said. "We have to face the music of what's going on and find a way because we've got to do it."

2B Jeff Keppinger could start Monday at Pittsburgh, manager Brad Mills said Sunday after he held Keppinger out of the lineup for a fourth straight day. Keppinger had been battling a stomach illness that made him weak. He has pinch-hit in the last two games and singled in his only at-bat both Saturday and Sunday to raise his average to .325.

By The Numbers: 7-23—The Astros' record in interleague play the last two seasons, a staggering sight for a team that has been rumored to be a candidate for a move to the American League should the leagues even in size.

Quote To Note: "I guess we have to get our fan base stronger, and the only way to do that is by winning. So we have to correct some things." —CF Michael Bourn, after hearing chants of "Let's go Red Sox" for three days at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Medical Watch:

2B Jeff Keppinger (nausea) did not start June 30-July 3, but he pinch-hit in the last two days of that stretch. Manager Brad Mills said Keppinger could start July 4.

OF Jason Bourgeois (strained right quadriceps) went on the 15-day disabled list June 29.

RHP Brandon Lyon (right biceps tendinitis, partially torn rotator cuff) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 14. He underwent season-ending surgery June 30.

C Humberto Quintero (sprained right ankle) went on the 15-day disabled list May 28. He began a rehab assignment with Class AAA Oklahoma City on July 1, and he hopes to be activated just after the All-Star break.

RHP Alberto Arias (sore right shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He threw to live hitters at extended spring training for the first time April 10. Arias felt another impingement in his shoulder April 15. He underwent an arthroscopic procedure June 3, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on June 29. He might resume throwing in late July or August.

C Jason Castro (right knee surgery in March 2011) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22, and he was transferred to the 60-day DL on May 28. He was participating in baseball activities in late June, and he hopes to return to action before the end of the season.

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