By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(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 PNC 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.
Jose Altuve, 0 for 5 against the Marlins, has cooled significantly at the plate. The second baseman is 4 for 20 with one run in five games after hitting .409 with six extra-base hits - including two homers - seven RBIs and 11 runs in the previous 10.
Bud Norris (2-1, 4.58) is expected to get the ball as he tries to win back-to-back starts for the first time since June 2-8.
The right-hander turned in one of his best performances of the season Saturday, allowing an unearned run and three hits with four walks in six innings of an 8-2 win over St. Louis. He's completed at least six innings in five of his six outings on the season.
"I've been pitching deep into ballgames," Norris told the team's official website. "I made a bigger stride last start getting through the sixth, and I know I really need to move that step and keep going forward."
Norris is 3-4 with a 4.04 ERA in eight starts against the Pirates, going 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in four at PNC Park.
Updated May 11, 2012