By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- It took a little longer this year, but it appears these are the same old Pittsburgh Pirates.
Flailing and running on fumes as they desperately try to stay in the wild-card race, the visiting Pirates' last stand could start Friday night against the Houston Astros.
It wasn't expected to be this way for Pittsburgh as it made its way to the top half of the NL Central for a second straight year. The Pirates were 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8, in contention for the division lead and in control of the second wild-card spot as the memories of last year's fade to a 90-loss season seemed buried.
Like deja vu all over again, though, the bottom has fallen out - but this time in swift, stunning and staggering fashion.
Pittsburgh has lost 28 of 39 since that high-water mark, capped by a three-game sweep at home at the hands of Milwaukee. Thursday's 9-7 loss dropped the Pirates 5 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the second wild-card spot, a seemingly insurmountable deficit with 13 games remaining for a team at a loss for answers.
"It's hard to believe," right fielder Garrett Jones said in an otherwise silent clubhouse. "You think back to all the excitement. We were in the pennant race. The fans were fired up. It's hard to believe how much it's changed. It's really disappointing."
The talk has gone from playoffs to the fight the Pirates (74-75) now have to avoid a 20th consecutive losing season that would extend their own dubious record as the longest among all North American professional sports teams.
"We worked very hard to get on top, and we weren't able to finish it off," manager Clint Hurdle said to the team's official website, referring to Thursday's loss that also could apply to his team's current state. "We've got to push through it."
Jeff Locke (0-1, 5.49 ERA) appears an unlikely candidate to rally around for the Pirates as he again seeks his first major league win. The right-hander did not get a decision Sunday after giving up five runs and seven hits in 4 1-3 innings of a 13-9 loss at Chicago. Locke has been reached for five runs in two of his three starts while serving up five home runs in 15 1-3 innings over those outings.
His first start this season came against Houston on Sept. 3, when he yielded five runs in five innings of a 5-1 defeat.
Despite a second straight 100-loss season that likely will result again in the worst record in franchise history, the Astros (48-102) have played better - albeit barely - than the Pirates in the last six weeks, going 12-26 since Aug. 8. Houston did Pittsburgh no favors in St. Louis ahead of this series, getting swept in a three-game set after a 5-4 loss Thursday.
Houston scored five runs in the series, thwarted offensively by going 4 for 35 with runners in scoring position.
"It's going to take these guys to step up," interim manager Tony DeFrancesco told the team's official website. "I think they've got enough at-bats right now, since I've been here, that somebody's got to come up and get a big hit."
After two good starts since joining the team from the Mexican League, Edgar Gonzalez (2-1, 4.40) tries to bounce back from a bad one. He took the loss last Friday against Philadelphia, giving up five runs in four innings of a 12-6 defeat.
Gonzalez beat Locke in his season debut, limiting the Pirates to one run in 5 1-3 innings.
Updated September 20, 2012