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HOU@PIT: McDonald fans eight over eight strong frames

PITTSBURGH -- Those driving away from PNC Park after Friday night's game could have expected to fill up their tank for 69.9 cents a gallon, listen to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the car radio, then watch Johnny Carson on the tube when they got home.

But, no, the only thing 1968 about the night was the game they had witnessed. The Pirates continued to turn back the clock to the golden era of pitching -- giving little and getting less -- but couldn't turn back the Astros, losing 1-0.

These close losses are becoming common -- and in a weird baseball sense, that is a very good thing. Not too many months ago, the Pirates were going through a torturous era when they rarely were even competitive. Now the regular hurt feels so good.

"We must be getting close, because it's hard. When it gets hard, it means you're getting closer," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We have to find a way to push through. We have to work through it."

One way might be a private meeting among the players to remind each other that this is never a one-man job. The Pirates have already held one players-only meeting, in Arizona -- followed immediately by their first two-game winning "streak."

"We know as a team that we have enough veteran guys who know when he have to say, 'Okay, this is enough. Let's get back to basics and stop putting too much pressure on yourself,'" said second baseman Neil Walker. "Sometimes, less is more. Everyone on this team wants to be the guy who helps the team win on any given night.

"With these close games, it's better if we don't all try to be the guy, just have everyone collectively do your job."

That kind of mentality could certainly have played a part in the Bucs misfiring on a pair of generous opportunities to give James McDonald some of the support he richly deserved.

Tendering another in a growing string of masterpieces in defeat, McDonald went eight innings and allowed four hits and one run -- on a double-play grounder -- while walking two and striking out eight.

In his last four starts, the emerging ace has fanned 33 in 29 innings, in which he has permitted 18 hits and six runs, lowering his season ERA to 2.42.

"He's been on a roll, and that was a very impressive performance tonight," Hurdle said.

The Astros scored in the second inning when, with runners at the corners, Justin Maxwell bounced into a double play -- the kind of run lost in the swirl of more significant details on most nights.

McDonald's reaction to that run?

"That's it. Time to compete and keep my team in the game," McDonald said.

But that run held up as the difference, thanks to Bud Norris, the Houston right-hander who threw three-hit, shutout ball for six innings, striking out eight and engineering two escapes that shook the heads of the 19,878 in attendance.

The Bucs goose-egged despite a sixth-inning chance as good as it gets. Rod Barajas' double, Clint Barmes' single and an error on McDonald's sacrifice bunt loaded the bases with none out and the top of the order coming up.

But Jose Tabata fanned, Nate McLouth popped to second and Andrew McCutchen struck out on a checked swing. That very well could have been the low point of a season spent at an offensive nadir.

"Part of the game," said McDonald, brushing aside the tough loss. "I've been the guy on the mound, getting shelled, and the guys were still playing hard behind me."

A fourth-inning scoring chance was almost as good as it gets: Tabata led off with a triple, the Bucs' first hit after Norris had worked three perfect innings. Yet this inning, too, would become three-up, three-down. McLouth popped weakly to third, Tabata broke on contact but was nailed at home on McCutchen's grounder to short, then McCutchen was erased attempting to steal.

"We started back and crept in right before the pitch, and that was the idea," Houston shortstop Jed Lowrie said of the play on Tabata, "to get the out at the plate and hopefully get the ground ball. They had some opportunities to score and Bud made pitches when he needed to."

You can't have these types of breathtaking games without flashing leather, and the Bucs did, particularly in the sixth, when a near-homer by Lowrie turned into an out at third, on a spellbinding Tabata-to-Walker-to-Pedro Alvarez relay.

Then there is Alvarez who, remarkably, remained hitless one week into his new role as cleanup hitter. Alvarez's 0-for-3, striking out each time, made him 0-for-18 since a hot streak earned him the No. 4 hole.

As soon as he was given that new role and responsibility, Alvarez may have joined the ranks of those trying to do more than his job alone.

"You see a bit of over-aggressiveness, a bit of indecisiveness," said Walker, speaking generally. "It's a lot of things. But these games do make you more resilient, and confident when the big at-bats come up in late innings.

"It hurts tonight, the many opportunities we had. But it's only gonna help us improve."

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