HOUSTON -- He's no longer scratching his head in search of answers or looking to the ground and wondering just how much worse things can go. The new and improved J.A. Happ is a pillar of confidence, both on the mound and in the way he presents his fresh outlook to reporters.
All of it -- the pitching with conviction and the confident words -- is in stark contrast to the tormented Happ who was sent to the Minor Leagues less than a month earlier. The Astros had seen enough of his struggles and decided they needed him to get back on track in Triple-A.
Happ, in his second start since returning to the Astros' starting rotation, threw seven scoreless innings Wednesday night, allowing just three hits and striking out six to lead Houston to its fourth consecutive win, 2-0, over the Pirates to complete the three-game sweep at Minute Maid Park.
"It's been quite a bit different," Happ said. "Obviously, having some success is helping, and a little bit of a mentality change and just trying to be positive out there. I'm trying to get in and out as quickly as possible."
Since returning from his three-start stint in Oklahoma City, Happ (5-15) has allowed one earned run in 13 innings, and on Wednesday snapped a personal four-game losing streak by picking up his first win in the Major Leagues since July 19.
"He threw the ball with confidence and his rhythm was good," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He got the ball and let it go. The pitching effort was absolutely outstanding."
Happ was the latest in a growing line of Astros starters to pitch well. Houston's pitchers have a 1.81 ERA in the last seven games, including a 1.76 ERA by the starting pitchers. Not surprisingly, the Astros are 5-2 in that span, with both losses coming in 2-1 defeats at San Francisco last week.
With Fernando Rodriguez working a scoreless eighth and Mark Melancon securing his 16th save, the Astros didn't allow a Pirates runner to reach second base.
"With good pitching, you can sure do a lot of things," Mills said.
Happ pounded the strike zone and got ahead of hitters, which set him up to breeze through the Pittsburgh lineup. He admitted there was too much negativity on the club earlier in the season, but the rookies the team has brought up in the last six weeks have provided energy.
"I might have got caught up in that [negativity] a little bit," Happ said. "There's just not reason for it. I'm just going out there and trying to have fun again, and having some success is fun. They kind of go hand in hand. I've kind of been saying this whole year it's not going to take a whole lot. It might take one inning of rolling over a lineup and you try to feed off something like that."
The Astros needed every bit of the good pitching, considering they had to rely on some aggressive baserunning and a well-executed bunt to score the only runs of the game.
The Astros squandered an early chance against Pirates starter James McDonald (8-7) when they loaded the bases with no outs in the second on the strength of three consecutive singles by Brian Bogusevic, Jimmy Paredes and Angel Sanchez and were unable to score.
Paredes sparked the Astros in the fourth when he led off the inning with a walk and went to third on a single by Sanchez.
Humberto Quintero followed with a check-swing tapper in front of the plate and was thrown out at first by catcher Ryan Doumit. Paredes took off for home when he noticed no one was covering the plate and slid home safely ahead of an errant throw from first baseman Garrett Jones. McDonald scurried towards the plate, but was too late.
"I read the check swing and saw the ball, and the catcher came out to the ball, and when he throws to first he doesn't go back," Paredes said. "I said to the pitcher covering home plate [that] he didn't have protection. I thought I'd be safe for sure and went home."
McDonald knew he was exposed to Paredes coming toward the plate as tried to get set for the throw from Jones.
"When he was coming in, I thought, if I would have collided, it would have been my legs," he said. "It wasn't that bad of a throw. If I was a catcher and had gear on, I would have no problem stepping across [home plate] and getting that ball."
Sanchez wound up at third on the play and scored moments later when Jordan Schafer sent a perfect bunt down the first-base line for an RBI single to make it 2-0. Schafer credited the work he put in this spring with former Astros manager Jimy Williams -- a special instructor in Spring Training for Atlanta -- for helping him refine his bunting.
"It's something I've gotten really comfortable with and something I did a bunch in Atlanta," said Schafer, who was traded from the Braves on July 31. "Situations like that, first and third, even if I don't get a hit there it's an easy RBI. It's a 1-0 game, so any extra runs there gives Happ some breathing room. It's something I've worked on a bunch and am pretty comfortable doing, and if the opportunity is there I'm going to take it."
Carlos Lee went 2-for-4 with a double for Houston to extend his hitting streak to a season-high 12 games.