Pittsburgh has been here before. A little more than a quarter of the way through the season, the Pirates sit at 25-18, having won seven of their last nine games heading into Sunday's series finale against the Astros.
The last two years, Pittsburgh has started strong only to stumble late in the season and fall short of making the postseason. Clint Hurdle wants to avoid a similar fate this season, so the Pirates' manager is keeping things simple.
"There's certain opportunities you have for execution, and when you do them often, you'll win," Hurdle said. "If not, you'll lose. Not overanalyzing."
The Bucs took advantage of opportunity on Friday, becoming the first Major League team to win on a walk-off dropped popup or fly ball since 2009. On Saturday, veteran starter A.J. Burnett held Houston to just one run in seven innings before Houston came back and scored two runs to win it in the 11th.
In the rubber match, it will be the Astros' Lucas Harrell taking the mound to face Pittsburgh's Jeff Locke. Both head into the game looking for their fourth win, though Locke has just one loss to Harrell's four.
For Houston, each game is another chance to improve. Although their record (12-31) and place in the standings (last in the American League West) doesn't show it, the Astros have proven so far to be a better offensive team than last year, when they ranked last in the Majors in runs scored. They entered play on Saturday ranked 19th before tacking on four more runs in their win over the Pirates.
One thing holding back the Astros offensively has been strikeouts, as Houston leads MLB by a wide margin. However, manager Bo Porter said improving in that area and at the plate in general is a point of emphasis going forward.
"Our players understand what it takes to be consistent," Porter said. "And the No. 1 thing we continue to drive home is to get a good pitch and put your swing on it."
Pirates: Locke set to make career-high ninth appearance
When Locke takes the hill for the Pirates on Sunday, it will be his ninth start of 2013, marking the most appearances in one season in his career. Locke made eight appearances in 2012, six of which were starts, after starting all four of his outings in '11.
Since taking the loss his first time out this season, the 25-year-old lefty is 3-0 with a 2.72 ERA. Locke earned a no-decision after six innings on Tuesday against the Brewers, surrendering three runs and seven hits in the 4-3 win.
Astros: Harrell looks to bounce back
Through 4 2/3 innings in his last start on Tuesday, Harrell had the Tigers on the ropes. Then Detroit posted three runs in the fifth, and the 27-year-old right-hander took his fourth loss of the season. Harrell would finish the fifth inning, allowing five runs and seven hits on the day.
Harrell said after the game that a lot of the damage could have been avoided if the Astros weren't shifting so actively on defense, possibly allowing a couple of possibly catchable balls to drop. Porter said he talked with Harrell to make sure they remain on the same page.
Last season, Harrell led the Astros in wins, innings pitched and starts. He's had an up-and-down 2013, surrendering eight earned runs on two occasions. However, he's also gone at least five innings while allowing just one earned run in five of his nine starts.
• Saturday marked the Astros' first extra-inning win this season (1-1), the first time they came back to win after trailing through seven (1-26) and the first time they won without hitting a home run (1-17).
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.