• Quotable: "It's been hell, you know that? That's what it's been -- this has been frustrating for all of us, with the progress we were making leading up to the break." -- Pirates manager Jim Tracy
• Figure this: Pittsburgh was outscored 42-20 during that seven-game slide.
• Unsung hero: Paul Maholm avoided a MLB-leading 13th loss by giving up just two runs in six-plus innings.
• Y'all come back now: Maholm is 2-0 with a 1.15 ERA in two starts against Houston this year. In his other 18 starts in '07, Maholm is 4-12 with a 5.06 ERA.
-- ESPN.com news services
Pirates 7, Astros 3
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pirates manager Jim Tracy didn't have to search for a word to describe what it was like going nearly two weeks without a victory.
The Pirates were outscored 42-20 during a slide that included three-game sweeps by Atlanta and Colorado and followed a pre-break stretch of nine victories in 13 games. The skid was their longest since they lost eight in a row before winning their final two last season.
"It's been hell, you know that?" Tracy said. "That's what it's been -- this has been frustrating for all of us, with the progress we were making leading up to the break."
With Paul Maholm (6-12) avoiding a major league-leading 13th loss by pitching effectively over 6 2/3 innings, the Pirates exited last place in the NL Central after falling there for the first time this season with a 2-1 loss to Houston on Friday night.
Maholm ran his scoreless innings streak against the Astros to 15 before tiring in the seventh, when Mike Lamb homered and Hunter Pence had an RBI double. Maholm shut out Houston on five hits over the first six innings in his first start against them since his three-hit shutout on April 24 in Pittsburgh.
"We can't seem to break through on these guys -- left-handers we haven't seen before or guys that are struggling," Astros manager Phil Garner said after his team's sixth loss in eight games since the break.
Actually, Maholm's record is misleading. He has been reliable most of the last two months, lasting at least seven innings in seven of 11 starts while often getting minimal run support. The Pirates have scored two runs or fewer in six of those 11 starts.
"I needed to go out and do my job and just get us back on a positive note," said Maholm, who has a 9-4 career record after the break. "We needed to take the pressure off and just go play ball."
Maholm, who allowed eight hits, left with runners on second and third and the Pirates up 6-2 in the seventh. Salomon Torres then got Mark Loretta on a groundout. The Pirates have won seven of eight against Houston this season.
Freddy Sanchez hit a solo homer, his fifth, and scored three times for the Pirates, who hadn't won in 13 days since beating the Cubs 6-2 in their final game before the break on July 8.
"It was bad, it seemed like we lost all of our momentum we had before the All-Star break" LaRoche said. "We lost our approach, we weren't making pitches. I don't know what it was, but it was tough."
Houston's Wandy Rodriguez (6-9) was ineffective again despite not allowing a hit until Matt Kata's leadoff single to start a two-run fourth. Sanchez and LaRoche singled to load the bases before Rodriguez hit Xavier Nady with a pitch to force in a run and Bay hit the first of his two sacrifice flies.
Rodriguez gave up six runs, four earned, in five innings. Since pitching 16 scoreless innings in consecutive starts to beat the Rockies and Mets, he has yielded 11 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings while losing to the Cubs and Pirates.
"I thought he was going to have a good game, the way he started," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "You breeze through three innings and then something just turns on you. It's not like he was giving up home runs or being hit all around the yard with line drives. ... They had a couple of well-hit balls, a hit batter, a couple of balls hit spots down the line, and the runs just stacked up on him."
Bay's second sacrifice fly came an inning later, when the Pirates scored four times to make it 6-0 on Kata's RBI double and LaRoche's two-run single. Kata, released by Texas earlier this season, had two hits and scored twice in his second start since being called up by the Pirates on June 30.
"No one likes to lose and guys tend to press a little bit [during a slump]," Kata said. "That's when you have to concentrate on the details, doing the little things right."
Bay, a consistent run producer since 2004 but slumping since early June, had multiple RBIs for only the second time in 21 games and the third time in 39 games.
Shawn Chacon pitched the ninth in a non-save situation.
Houston's Lance Berkman (swollen hand) didn't start for the second game in a row, striking out against Damaso Marte as a pinch-hitter in the eighth to strand two runners. Berkman probably won't start Sunday against left-hander Shane Youman. ... During a pregame ceremony to retire Hall of Famer Paul Waner's number, the Pirates recognized Astros INF Craig Biggio for reaching the 3,000-hit plateau. Biggio left the Astros' dugout and tipped his cap while receiving a standing ovation. ... Houston 3B Morgan Ensberg's throwing error on Maholm's sacrifice bunt aided the four-run fifth. ... Bay has 11 RBIs in 16 career at-bats against Rodriguez.