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Astros Return From All-Star Break To Face Pittsburgh Pirates

(Sports Network) - Two of the have-nots in the National League's Central Division get together tonight when the fifth-place Houston Astros visit the sixth-place Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a three-game weekend series at PNC Park.

The Astros and Pirates, who finished fifth and sixth, respectively, last season, are already all but out of contention in the division at the season's unofficial midway point. Houston trails the first-place Cincinnati Reds by 12 1/2 games, while the Pirates are 18 games back and in possession of the worst record in the NL at 30-58.

Hard-throwing right-hander Brett Myers takes the mound for the Astros with the hope of repeating a strong outing in his last start before the All-Star break, when he allowed just four hits and a run in eight innings of a 4-1 win over St. Louis last Saturday. The win leveled Myers at 6-6 in his initial year with Houston after he'd spent his entire professional career with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Jacksonville, Fla. native is 4-4 lifetime against the Pirates, including a 10-3 win in an April 25 start in Texas. In that game, Myers allowed 11 hits and two runs in six innings en route to his first win of 2010.

Pittsburgh counters with 27-year-old lefty Zach Duke, who makes his first appearance since a stint on the 15-day disabled list with a strained elbow.

The former 20th-round draft pick (2001) had lost four straight starts before the injury, including a 7-2 interleague defeat against the Chicago White Sox on June 16 in Pittsburgh. In that game Duke was touched for eight hits and five runs, and in the four losses he allowed 38 hits and 21 runs in a combined 22 innings.

The Clifton, Texas native is 2-4 lifetime against the Astros with a 3.25 earned run average in 61 innings.

Pittsburgh entered the break on a six-game skid and lost a 6-5 heartbreaker to Milwaukee on Sunday, with the Brewers' Corey Hart clubbing a game-winning two- run homer in the ninth inning.

After Andrew McCutchen's sacrifice fly scored Ronny Cedeno to give Pittsburgh a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth, Milwaukee's Jim Edmonds led off the bottom half with a ground-rule double off Pirates closer Octavio Dotel (2-2).

Two batters later, Hart crushed a 1-0 slider over the wall in left for his 21st home run of the season, finishing off a sweep that featured three one-run victories for the hosts.

Lastings Milledge went 2-for-3 with a solo homer for Pittsburgh (30-58), while Dotel suffered his second blown save of the series and fifth of the season.

Houston was also last in action on Sunday, when the team dropped a 4-2 decision to St. Louis in the rubber match of a three-game series.

Matt Holliday had a three-run homer for the Cardinals, one of four hits given up by Houston's Wandy Rodriguez (6-11), who fanned six through six innings.

The Astros have dominated the season series between these teams, winning all six meetings with Pittsburgh thus far in 2010. This will be Houston's first trip to the Steel City, where the club won four of six from the Pirates last year, of the season.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.