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HOU@PIT: Norris strikes out six over seven frames

PITTSBURGH -- The only good news to emerge from Thursday night's loss to the Pirates, other than a strong pitching performance by Bud Norris, was that the Astros' long, miserable road trip had finally drawn to a conclusion.

The Astros are coming home to Minute Maid Park this weekend to close out the first half of the season, and they can't get there soon enough.

Jeff Karstens threw eight scoreless innings to outduel Norris and send the Astros to their season-high-tying eighth consecutive loss, 2-0, to the first-place Pirates, who swept the four-game series at PNC Park.

The Astros, who are 9-32 on the road, have lost 10 consecutive games away from home in getting swept by the Rangers last month and the Cubs and Pirates on a seven-game road trip that ended Thursday. Houston is 23-19 at home heading into Friday's game against Milwaukee.

"One of the things we're trying to do is change it around on the road," first baseman Chris Johnson said. "We're just struggling when we go on the road, and when we go home we play the kind of baseball we think we're capable of, and when we go the road, things get out of whack. Hopefully we can win a series before the All-Star break and start fresh after that."

The Astros, who also lost eight games in a row May 26-June 2, were outscored 37-15 on the road trip, getting shut out three times. In the seven games, they hit .222 as a team with two homers and 15 RBIs and had a team ERA of 5.91.

Pitching wasn't an issue Thursday, with Norris enduring a 33-pitch third inning by allowing just one run and then sending down 12 of the final 14 batters he faced. He threw seven innings and gave up five hits and two runs, but lost his fifth consecutive start to fall to 5-6.

The Astros haven't scored a run in Norris' last two starts. Houston managed only four singles against Karstens and didn't have a runner reach third base until J.D. Martinez went to second on defensive indifference and then scampered to third on a wild pitch in the ninth.

"These guys are leaving it on the line and we're trying to play hard baseball and unfortunately things haven't gone our way," Norris said. "We've got to start catching breaks. It's been a recurring thing at times for us, but we know we've got good baseball in us and we've got to keep getting out there. We've got a young group; we've got to keep going at it."

Karstens, who picked up his first home win in a year, needed only 89 pitches to keep the Astros scoreless through eight innings and never allowed more than one runner to reach base in an inning.

"We were able to throw strikes when we had to, bounce the ball when we had to," Karstens said. "We were able to do some good things. Fortunately for me, they were able to go after some of those pitches I was throwing."

The Astros were flailing at Karstens' breaking stuff in the dirt early in the game and then changed their approach to try to be more aggressive early in the count and swing at more fastballs, which led to some quick innings. The game was played in a brisk 2 hours, 22 minutes.

"When you face a guy that throws 90 with a slow breaking ball, it's not only hard to hit the breaking ball but hard to hit the fastball, too," All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve said. "You get caught between those two pitches. He threw a real good game, obviously."

Norris gave up back-to-back doubles to Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee to start the second to allow the Pirates to take a 1-0 lead. McGehee simply poked a pitch off the plate over first base and watched it plop into right field for an RBI hit.

The Pirates took a 2-0 lead in the third on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly off the bat of Jones, who sent a long fly ball to left field that was hauled in on the warning track by Martinez. Earlier in the inning, Martinez couldn't run down a similar fly ball off the bat of Neil Walker that resulted in a double.

"The big shame about it was the third inning when the pitcher led off with a single and hadn't had a hit all year," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He took the count to 3-2 and was able to get that hit to start the inning, and that was too bad. The other thing is I think they had five hits, four of them for extra bases, and we had the four singles. [Norris] battled through it with runners in scoring position and that was sure nice to see."

Now, the Astros return home for three games against the Brewers and understand the importance of righting the ship prior to the All-Star break. Houston won't have to wait long to test its road mettle in the second half with 10 consecutive road games after the break.

"It was a tough road trip for us," Norris said. "We're excited to go home. We've got three games before the break to turn it around. It's been a tough little stretch here, and we just have to keep going out there and playing hard and battling and see where we go."

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