MIL@PIT: Liriano fans seven over 5 2/3 strong frames

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, as is often pointed out, majors in pitching. That is his area of expertise, the part of the game he knows inside-out and where he feels most comfortable following his own instincts.

For instance, Huntington's leading mantra concerns the upside of pitchers with "swing-and-miss" stuff. How has the GM fared following that guideline? And how are the Bucs faring as a result?

Pretty well, to say the least.

Three years after they ranked last in the National League in strikeouts, the Pirates (330 entering Friday) are on the verge of overtaking the Reds (334) for the league lead. In the first quarter of this season, the staff has already had nearly as many games with strikeouts in double-figures (15) as it had in all of 2010 (16). In Friday's 5-4 win over Houston, four Pirates pitchers tallied seven strikeouts, including six by the bullpen.

The progression in that department has been as steady -- to 20 in 2011 and 31 last season. This is a valuable tool because, as manager Clint Hurdle likes to point out, it means the Bucs' batterymen get to do nothing more than play catch every game.

A major component of the strikeouts haul has been a bullpen that has done amazing work, leading the Majors in relievers strikeouts (141) while holding opponents to a .212 average.

The only thing more amazing than those results is the overhauled bullpen responsible for them. The only reliever back in the same capacity from a 2012 crew, that in its own right was largely responsible for the Bucs remaining in contention, is left-hander Tony Watson.

Jason Grilli is also a holdover, but of course has gone from setup man to closer, a dramatic shift. All the others -- Bryan Morris, Vin Mazzaro, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and Jose Contreras -- are new faces.

In assembling that cast, "we looked for skills that could dominate late," Hurdle said, "and guys who can put it on the ground to get quick outs for length. We mixed and matched very well. The numbers right now scream."

Pirates welcome former division rival to town

HOU@PIT: Pirates walk off on an error in the 9th

PITTSBURGH -- The American League West is supposed to be about as tough as divisions come.

The Rangers reached the World Series in 2010 and 2011, the Angels piled superstars the previous two offseasons, and the Athletics always seem to find ways to win without any big names.

This winter, the division welcomed the Houston Astros -- the lowly Astros, who won only 55 games last season in the NL Central.

And as if joining one of baseball's toughest divisions wasn't difficult enough, the Astros had to switch leagues and the makeup of their roster, something Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is anything but envious of.

"It's very tough to transition that quickly," Hurdle said. "I know they've taken some steps accordingly, but you build your club to be a National League team for years."

Despite the AL West not living up to its expectations this season -- the Rangers are the only team above .500 -- the Astros haven't fared any better for it.

Entering Friday, Houston is tied with the Marlins for the worst record in baseball at 11-30, 16 games out of first place with just 25 percent of the season played. It only got worse for them Friday, as they blew a 4-1 lead and lost on an error with two outs in the ninth.

Hurdle, like any manager would, said that his Pirates will take the same approach against the Astros as they would against anyone else. But he admitted the familiarity with Houston makes things a little easier.

"You might have a little more in-depth [knowledge] because you had a little more hands on with them," he said.

In addition to the familiarity of playing the Astros, the Pirates will also welcome back a few former Bucs, including pitcher Erik Bedard, who will start Saturday, and outfielder Robbie Grossman, who was in the Pittsburgh system from 2008-12.

Astros manager Bo Porter said there are obvious differences in the two leagues, but he's excited to get back to play some National League-style baseball. Astros third baseman Matt Dominguez said the familiarity with Pittsburgh and some other Central teams should alleviate the usual differences in Interleague Play.

"A lot of those teams we played last year and are a little more familiar with, but we're starting to get a little more familiar with the American League teams," Dominguez said.

Gomez making most of his opportunity to start

PIT@NYM: Gomez allows two hits and one run vs. Mets

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates rotation has more capable arms than in years past, but with a couple of them on the mend, Jeanmar Gomez has had an opportunity to get out of his mop-up bullpen role.

Pittsburgh acquired Gomez from Toronto in January after he spent the first three years of his big league career with the Indians. The Pirates made him a long reliever to begin 2013, and he surrendered only four runs in 13 2/3 innings during five appearances.

But Gomez has gotten the opportunity to start three games in the last few months, and cashed in on that chance.

"We're confident when he takes the mound, and he is as well," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Every time he's taken the ball, he's pitched a competitive game for us, whether it's been in long relief or the starts."

In his three starts, the first two of which he had little notice of, Gomez surrendered three earned runs in 14 innings while striking out 11 and walking five. In three of Gomez's appearances from the bullpen, he came in after a struggling Jonathan Sanchez exited, then made his first start on May 1 in place of Sanchez.

Gomez was 2-0 with a 2.28 ERA overall before Friday's game after going 14-16 with a 5.18 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in three years with Cleveland. in Friday's 5-4 win over the Astros, he allowed three earned runs on five hits and two walks in 4 2/3 innings.

"Sometimes guys just wake up and get it, and they didn't get it where they were," Hurdle said. "Maybe it's because you lost an opportunity somewhere else that reality has sunk in that you might need to make an adjustment that you need to make to find that next level of success."

Worth noting

• Russell Martin keeps getting props for leading all Major League catchers in runners caught stealing (226) since he broke in with the Dodgers in 2006. The praise is deserving, and his defensive influence on the Pirates can't be overstated.

However, one must bear in mind the intimidation factor: St. Louis' Yadier Molina, regarded as being the Majors' best throwing catcher, has nailed 189 runners in the same stretch. However, Martin has also had exactly twice as many bases stolen on his watch (514) than Molina (257).

He was credited with another caught stealing in Friday's game, but a ran came home because of an error on the play.

• Last Sunday in New York, Clint Barmes became only the second player this season to get two hits off the Mets' Matt Harvey. Miami's Donovan Solano did it first, and the Cubs' Starlin Castro did it on Friday.

First number, last word

5-9: The Pirates' record, after Friday night's opener of a three-game set against Houston, in the first games of series this season, in stark contrast to their record (20-8) in all other games.

"Good teams that go on to play late, you hear it from them at the end every year: 'It took all of us.' You get to rely on different guys throughout the season for a spark." -- Hurdle, on the importance of keeping everyone on the 25-man roster involved.