(AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t given James McDonald much help this season.

He may not need a whole lot as the Pirates open this three-game series with the slumping Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Friday night.

McDonald (2-1, 2.70 ERA) has been backed by two or fewer runs in five of his six starts, and he’s yet to allow more than three runs in any of his outings.

The right-hander appears to be finally getting enough support to collect some victories. He received just two runs, but yielded one while striking out seven in 6 1-3 innings of Saturday’s 3-2 win over Cincinnati. That came five days after he was backed with a season-high nine runs as he allowed three and fanned a career-high 10 to lead Pittsburgh (14-17) to a 9-3 win at Atlanta.

McDonald wasn’t this effective last season when he went 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA.

“I really look forward to seeing the continuing evolution of this young man,” manager Clint Hurdle told the team’s official website. “The growth he has exhibited in a year’s time is significant enough for you to be excited about it when he takes the mound.”

Hurdle may be excited to see McDonald take the mound against the Astros (14-17), who are hitting .195 with seven runs in losing three of four after compiling a .287 average with 14 homers over the previous 12 games – winning eight.

McDonald is 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA in five career starts versus the NL Central rival.

He may need to be prepared for another rough performance from his lineup, which has a .185 average with 15 runs while splitting the first six of this nine-game homestand.

The bats struggled again Thursday, mustering five hits in a 4-2 loss to Washington.

Andrew McCutchen has been one of the few bright spots with six hits in three games since returning from a bout with the flu. The center fielder leads the Pirates with a .330 average and 17 runs, and he’s batting .327 with 12 RBIs in 15 home meetings with the Astros.

The Astros are trying to regroup after falling 5-3 to Miami on Wednesday.



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