The best tonic for the Pittsburgh Pirates' struggling offense would likely be facing their own major league-worst pitching staff. Instead, they'll have to settle for a matchup with a pitcher they tagged for 10 runs earlier this month.
The last-place Pirates will try to break their five-game slide on Monday when they open a three-game series at Minute Maid Park against Runelvys Hernandez and the Houston Astros.Pittsburgh (44-54) was six games below .500 heading into the All-Star break, but had room for optimism despite the worst staff ERA in the majors. The Pirates had scored the fourth-most runs in the NL thanks largely to their outfield of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and All-Star Nate McLouth.They opened the second half in Colorado against a similarly weak pitching staff, but couldn't take advantage. Pittsburgh scored only nine runs -- eight of them in the third inning or earlier -- in a four-game sweep.The Pirates put up three runs in the first inning of Sunday's finale, but starter Zach Duke gave up nine runs in five innings en route to an 11-3 loss."This isn't like us," first baseman Adam LaRoche told the Pirates' official Web site. "Scoring runs and getting guys on hasn't really been a problem all year -- especially not in four straight games."LaRoche is one of the few Pirates hitting consistently of late, batting .389 (14-for-36) with two homers and seven RBIs in his last 10 games. Bay, Nady and McLouth, meanwhile, went a combined 6-for-34 (.176) with two RBIs against Colorado.Pittsburgh could find offense easier to come by against Hernandez (0-3, 10.29 ERA). The veteran right-hander was hammered by the Pirates on July 7 at PNC Park, giving up 10 runs and 13 hits in four innings of the Astros' 10-7 loss.The Astros, though, also had recent success against Pittsburgh's scheduled starter. John Van Benschoten (1-2, 9.77 ERA) gave up four runs in 4 2-3 innings -- walking six -- on July 9 against Houston (46-52). He didn't get a decision in the Pirates' 6-4 loss.In 24 career games, Van Benschoten, Pittsburgh's No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, is 2-12 with an 8.96 ERA -- the highest in major league history for a pitcher with at least 17 starts."He's capable of throwing the ball well, and that's what we're hoping to get out of him -- just get us deep in the game," manager John Russell told the Pirates' official Web site.Van Benschoten will face an Astros' offense that, like Pittsburgh's, has been having problems scoring runs. Houston has put up 17 runs in its last six games.The Astros had won four straight games heading into Sunday despite their offensive woes, but lost 9-0 in their series finale against the NL-leading Chicago Cubs."I'm a little disappointed that we didn't score today," Cooper said. "But hey, two out of three against the team that's leading the National League -- that's pretty good."The Pirates have won six of their last nine games in Houston.