PITTSBURGH -- The performance Astros right-hander Lucas Harrell delivered Sunday afternoon would have been good enough on most days for a win. He spotted his sinker to both sides of the plate, coaxed the Pirates into hitting ground ball after ground ball and turned in his best game of the year.
Not even a vintage performance by Harrell was enough to save the Astros from another road loss.
Pirates starter Jeff Locke threw seven scoreless innings and allowed only three singles, and Pedro Alvarez shot a line-drive home run down the left-field line in the fifth inning to send the Astros to a 1-0 loss in the series finale at PNC Park.
"I think you look today and their guy did a pretty good job," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "I thought our guy did a great job, but Alvarez put a good swing on a good pitch and it ended up being the difference in the ballgame. But I don't think there's anybody that can hang their heads today. Both teams had a chance to win, but their guy just happened to put a good swing on a good pitch and hit it out of the ballpark."
Houston's first Interleague series of the season saw it lose a pair of one-run games and win an extra-inning affair Saturday in a tight series against the Astros' former National League Central rivals. That gives Porter reasons for optimism.
"We're playing a lot better," he said. "They sent a guy to the mound that had good stuff and he did a tremendous job against our lineup. Anytime a game is 1-0, obviously you're talking about a pitching duel. That one ball that was driven over the wall could have very well hit off the wall and we could still be out there playing and it could be 0-0. He put a good swing on it and ended up leaving the ballpark."
Harrell and Locke both carried no-hitters into the fifth inning in a game that wound up being played in 2 hours, 24 minutes -- the shortest of the season for Houston. Harrell hadn't pitched beyond the fifth in any of his previous three starts, going 0-2 with an 8.79 ERA in that span.
During his between-starts bullpen sessions, Harrell worked extensively on his mechanics with pitching coach Doug Brocail, and he saw the dividends Sunday.
"He really preached to me during my side about fastball command to both sides of the plate, and I felt like today was the first game this year where I really dominated both sides of the plate with my sinker," he said. "[Catcher Carlos] Corporan and I had a great game plan, and he did his homework and I just followed along with his plan. I didn't shake him off much and the defense played great behind me."
Corporan called Harrell's performance "beautiful," and said the right-hander threw almost nothing but sinkers because they were so effective.
"His sinker was unbelievable today," he said. "Alvarez just put a good swing on one and hit it out of the ballpark. Other than that, it was unhittable. We didn't even use his curveball, maybe three or four times. It was sinker, sinker, sinker."
Harrell looked to be in top-notch form from the get-go when he retired the Pirates 1-2-3 in the first inning on three groundouts. Through four innings, he had given up only one walk and had yet to allow a ball to be hit out of the infield.
The Pirates' first hit came with one out in the fifth inning when Alvarez socked a sinker down and away for a line-drive home run that traveled 330 feet and went just inside the foul pole.
"You had the feeling the first run someone got would be it," Locke said.
Locke, meanwhile, was just as stingy, the first hit off him Corporan's leadoff single in the fifth. The Astros got leadoff singles by Harrell in the sixth and Chris Carter in the seventh, but Houston didn't get a runner past second base.
"We couldn't manufacture anything," Porter said. "Their guy did a good job. He changed speeds and pitched to both sides of the plate and kept us away from the barrel. Sometimes you have to tip your cap and give credit to the other guy."
The only base hit with a runner in scoring position in the game came in the sixth inning, when Gaby Sanchez singled to center with two outs and Travis Snider on second base. Astros center fielder Brandon Barnes played it perfectly, firing to the plate to Corporan, who survived a hard shove from Snider to get the third out.
"Lucas kept us in the game the whole time, and it stinks we couldn't capitalize on that," Barnes said. "He pitched his butt off, and the guy on the other side did a great job, too."