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LAD@PIT: Locke tosses two scoreless in relief

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle certainly isn't happy with his team's recent play, but he does take some satisfaction in the fact that expectations are changing in Pittsburgh.

"I didn't expect us to work our way back to .500," Hurdle said. "We're not here to compete and try hard. This is not a try-hard league. To now have fans actually irate that we [may not] win the Wild Card ... what a change. It doesn't make me feel good, but it makes me understand there's a change going on.

"We're not where we need to be, nor where we want to be. Are we headed in the right direction? Absolutely. But we have much more work to do."

The Pirates carry slim postseason hopes into this weekend's three-game series against the Astros, which starts on Friday in Houston. Pittsburgh trails St. Louis by 5 1/2 games for the second National League Wild Card.

This will be the final series between the Pirates and Astros as National League opponents; Houston will move to the American League West in 2013.

Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke is still trying to establish himself as a Major League starter; his ERA in his first three starts is 7.04. Against the Astros on Sept. 3, Locke allowed five runs on seven hits in a 5-1 loss.

Locke also gave up five runs on seven hits against the Cubs in his last start, on Sunday.

The Astros are relishing the chance to play spoiler against contenders in the National League. They took three of four from the Phillies last weekend before being swept by the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Astros first baseman Brett Wallace said games feel a little different when the other team has a postseason berth in mind.

"I think the biggest thing you can tell is when the first pitch starts, the other team is ready to go and they're really locked in," Wallace said. "It's a good experience for us to continue to learn how to perform in those situations."

Right-hander Edgar Gonzalez, who has made three starts for the Astros since they signed him from the Mexican League, will start on Friday. He allowed six hits and five runs against the Phillies last Friday after earning the win in his first two starts.

Astros: Schafer still unable to swing
Astros outfielder Jordan Schafer still isn't able to lift his left arm over his head after aggravating his left shoulder while diving for a ball in Cincinnati. He's been limited to pinch-running duties since Sept. 9.

A separated left shoulder kept Schafer on the disabled list from Aug. 7 to Sept. 1.

"It's slowly gotten better, but it's not to the point to where I can really do anything yet," Schafer said. "I've tried the last couple of days, but it still bothers me and I haven't even tried to swing yet. It was getting better until I dove in Cincinnati and I landed awkward again, and it hasn't gotten [completely] better."

Schafer isn't ruling out a return to full duty by the end of the season, which is less than two weeks away.

"We don't have too much time for it to get better," Schafer said.

Pirates: Walker hopes to stay on the field in Houston
Second baseman Neil Walker, who has been starting every other game with tightness in his lower back, said he hopes the "very soft" field at Minute Maid Park can help him stay in the game.

"That should help take some stress off my back, so I don't get drained by playing a whole game," Walker said.

Walker batted fifth in Thursday's series finale against the Brewers. He also batted fifth in Tuesday's 6-0 loss to the Brewers.

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