07/06/2003 12:32 PM ET
Notes: Healthy Benson is key
Ace has been solid following shoulder woes
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates took a three-game winning streak into Sunday's contest with the Houston Astros at PNC Park. With a win, the Bucs could tie their season high for consecutive wins. Pittsburgh took its first four games of the season, March 31 to April 4, and also won four in a row between June 14 and June 18.
By Eric Pfahler / MLB.com
This current streak has put the Bucs within shouting distance of the National League Central Division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, who took a 6 1/2 game advantage over the Pirates into Sunday's competition.
Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said the rest of the league has not taken away the Bucs' hope for a pennant.
"I wasn't looking for confirmation or support," McClendon said referring to statements he had made about the Bucs' chances of taking the division. "I just said what I believe. We're five games back in the loss column.
"We're back in the division, and we'll see what happens. We just need to continue this strong effort through the [All-Star] break."
McClendon said having his ace, Kris Benson, healthy and ready to go is key to the Bucs' ability to put a streak together.
"If we're going to do anything in this division, we need Kris to be as good as he can be," McClendon said. "If he does that, we have our go-to guy."
Benson missed one start due to shoulder inflammation, but has allowed just two earned runs in his last two starts. In three appearances prior to those outings, he had been rocked, giving up 20 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings.
Benson's strong comeback combines with solid efforts from the other four starters, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Jeff Suppan and Sunday's hurler, Jeff D'Amico. In the last 50 2/3 innings, Pirates starters have allowed just 12 earned runs, good for a 2.12 ERA. Pittsburgh's rotation has tossed five or more innings in each start, since Benson pitched just 2 1/3 innnings on June 10 in a 13-8 loss at Toronto, a span of 20 games.
Closer Mike Williams said Benson is capable of being a consistent pitcher for the Pirates.
"[Benson] needs to continue what he's doing," Williams said. "The last couple starts, he's done what he has to do."
Wells said one good start puts a friendly pressure on the next day's starter to perform as well.
"The expectations [are] high when everyone is going out there and pitching well.
"You're trying to match each other," Wells said.
Wells said veterans in the rotation like D'Amico and Suppan, who threw a complete game shutout last Sunday in a 9-0 win over the Colorado Rockies, have helped pace the rotation.
"Guys like [D'Amico and Suppan] bring out the best in the rotation," he said.
Williams said the improvement of Wells has helped the club significantly, despite Wells' 2-3 record.
"Kip's got great stuff," Williams said. "He gets better every time he's out there."
Rehab refreshing for Simon: Pirates first baseman Randall Simon went 2-for-4 with a double, RBI and two runs in his first game on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Nashville. Simon has been on the DL since June 21. The left-hander was eligible to come off the DL Sunday, but will remain in Triple-A until he proves his right hand is 100 percent, McClendon said.
"If [Simon's] not hurting, and he's feeling good, then we'll bring him back," McClendon said.
The Bucs skipper said Simon, who is a free swinger, will return based on his health, not his hitting.
"[Simon's] a hacker," McClendon said. "He'd probably get out of bed in the cold of winter and get two hits."
McClendon said he does not want to tamper with Simon's approach at the plate.
"If you try to tame him, you'll probably take away his greatest asset, which is his aggressiveness."
In 64 games this season, Simon has hit .279 with seven homers and is third on the team with 40 RBIs.
Relief for the reliever: After making four straight appearances, Williams will not be used in Sunday's game against the Astros. McClendon said he will decide which reliever to use, based on the situation if the Pirates are in a save opportunity.
"I will not use Mike," McClendon said.
Williams earned three saves in those appearances, upping his season total to 24. He now ranks third in the Major Leagues in saves, trailing the Braves' John Smoltz (31) and Dodgers closer Eric Gagne (30).
In those past four games, four runners scored on Williams.
Williams said he would have been ready to go if needed and could throw as "many as it takes."
"Once you get loose, a one-hitter or a three-hitter, it's all the same," he said.
Bucco bits: The Pirates are searching for their first home series sweep of the season Sunday against the Houston Astros. After taking the first two games in the series, the Bucs are one win away from sweeping Houston for the first time since May 28-30, 1999. The Pirates entered the series 1-7 against the Astros this season. ... Following Saturday's win, the Bucs hiked their record in one-run games to 13-14. Each of the Pirates' last four games have been decided by one run.
Eric Pfahler is an intern for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.