PITTSBURGH -- Brad Mills yanked one player from the game for what he deemed "behavioral reasons," removed another player a few innings later after he was traded and then had to tell a rookie pitcher who had been getting the job done that he was headed to the Minor Leagues.
These are indeed challenging times for the Astros manager, who for the third year in a row said goodbye to a veteran player when Carlos Lee was traded to the Marlins for prospects, this time while watching his young club wilt on the road.
The struggling Astros squandered an early lead and lost their seventh consecutive game, 6-4, to the Pirates on Wednesday afternoon before a sellout crowd at PNC Park. Houston has lost nine consecutive games on the road.
"When it rains, it pours," Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez said.
Rookie left-hander Dallas Keuchel (1-1), making his fourth Major League start, worked 5 2/3 innings and allowed seven hits, four walks and four runs while throwing 99 pitches in 90-degree-plus heat. He had given up just three earned runs total in his first three starts.
"You know what? You could say he deserved a better fate," Mills said. "There were some things that went wrong in the second inning that scuffed us up a little bit. He battled through on a tough day to pitch and did a really good job."
Keuchel was optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City following the game to allow the Astros to add another reliever to their beleaguered bullpen. If Keuchel stays in the rotation, he won't miss any time, considering this was his last start prior to the All-Star break.
"I think I've done my job so far and that's all I can try to do," Keuchel said. "The rest is up to them. I'll just continue to try to throw and see where it leads."
Mills pulled center fielder Jordan Schafer from the game in the third inning after he threw to the wrong base in the second and didn't hurry getting a ball back to the infield earlier in the inning. Lee was taken out in the seventh after the Astros had worked out a trade for the veteran.
The botched play by Schafer was indicative of the struggles the Astros have been having. A candid Martinez, who has had some baserunning blunders recently, said he needed to do a better job.
"I feel we have been making mistakes and I take a lot of responsibility for that," Martinez said. "I feel like we're not playing at the level where we can make those kind of mistakes right now. I feel like we're giving too many outs away, we're putting too many runners in scoring position and giving them a really good chance to score runs."
The Astros took a 2-0 lead in the second on a sacrifice fly by Jason Castro that scored Lee and an RBI single to right field by Martinez that scored Scott Moore. The bottom half of the inning saw the Pirates capitalize on some Astros defensive lapses.
Keuchel began the inning by walking Casey McGehee, and he advanced to third base on a double to center field by Garrett Jones that bounced in front of Schafer. Pedro Alvarez walked to the load the bases for Michael McKenry, who lofted a sacrifice fly to deep center.
Schafer threw to third base in a long-shot attempt to get the runner tagging from second, but that allowed Alvarez to take second base and ultimately cost the Astros a run. Mills pulled Schafer out of the game.
"I just felt that play and behavior didn't match what we needed to get done and what everybody was doing," Mills said. "We came out of the gate busting our tails, guys were going first to third, first to third, and putting ourselves in position to score a lot of runs. His behavior didn't match what we needed to have done."
Clint Barmes followed with an RBI single to score Jones, but the play wasn't over. When Martinez threw to the plate, Barmes tried to move to second. He wound up getting caught in a rundown and was tagged out by second baseman Jose Altuve, but not before Alvarez dashed home to put the Pirates ahead, 3-2.
McKenry's RBI double in the fourth inning pushed the Pirates' lead to 4-2, but the Astros got a run back in the fifth on an RBI groundout by Altuve. Alvarez's two-run single in the seventh off Fernando Abad made it 6-3 with a pair of runs charged to David Carpenter.
"It's just [they need] to get the pressure off our back," Martinez said. "It just feels like we have too much pressure right now that we have to win, we have to break out of this, and personally it's making me play with more pressure. I'm not playing scared, but hesitant to make mistakes. We can't play like that."