The Pirates-Houston Astros game Sunday turned into a sprint.
The two starters, Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke and Astros right-hander Lucas Harrell, raced to and from the dugout following inning after efficient inning, limiting their pitch counts and raising the bar for the other.
"This was the funnest game I've pitched all year," Locke said.
Harrell allowed only one run, but that would do for the Pirates, who won, 1-0, at PNC Park in a game that took 2 hours, 24 minutes. The Pirates won for the eighth time in their past 10 games and improved to 26-18.
Locke (4-1) needed 94 pitches for seven scoreless innings. He walked two and struck out four. He didn't allow a hit until the fifth and all three Astros hits against him were singles.
The Astros' lineup featured the likes of Carlos Corporan, Jimmy Paredes and Marwin Gonzalez, but Locke has done this before. He posted an identical line -- 7 scoreless innings, 3 hits, 2 walks and 4 strikeouts -- on the road against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals April 28.
Despite such a line, manager Clint Hurdle said Locke battled himself.
"That's not the best stuff he's had all season," Hurdle said. "He was behind in a number of counts, his first-pitch strikes were below 50 percent. That said, he didn't give up anything."
Harrell (3-5) also pitched seven innings, allowing one run on four hits. He had walked 13 batters over his past three starts, spanning 141/3 innings, but Sunday he walked one.
Harrell worked fast. He stood on the rubber, ready for the next pitch, sometimes as quickly as eight seconds after the previous pitch hit the catcher's mitt. The Pirates batters pumped the brakes by stepping out between almost every pitch.
"There's obviously some challenges, especially [for] a guy like me who likes to take a swing in between pitches," said Pedro Alvarez, whose solo home run won the game. "I kind of have a process to getting ready. A guy like that comes, you have to change a little bit and have a shorter routine."
Locke said Harrell's pace and success Sunday kept him focused.
"Any time I can get in the dugout, get a drink of water, he mows through them real quick in the first two innings and, before you know it, you got to run back out there again," Locke said. "It keeps your mind off things. It keeps you attacking and being aggressive. You don't have a whole lot of time to think about anything that can happen."
Neither pitcher allowed a hit through the first four innings. The Pirates couldn't even hit a ball out of the infield, and the only one they put in the air was a pop fly to second. Travis Snider led off the fourth by attempting to bunt for a base hit.
Locke and Harrell needed only 109 pitches combined to complete the first four innings.
"[Michael] McKenry game-planned well with him," Hurdle said of Locke. "There weren't a lot of shakes. There weren't a lot of long sequences and pauses before he had to unload once he got on the rubber."
After 4 1/3 innings of weak contact by the Pirates, Alvarez got a piece of one.
Harrell started Alvarez with a first-pitch fastball on the outside corner. He hit his spot, but Alvarez went with it and drove it around the left-field foul pole, planting it in the first few rows of seats for his eighth home run this season.
"I just remember hitting it and knew that it was going to be fair, but I didn't know if it was going to carry as much as it did," Alvarez said.
Alvarez has homered in the past two games he has played.
"Those kinds of things, it's great when they happen because I think it will reaffirm, Petey, you can do this," Hurdle said. "That ball out there, you can barrel it up. You can ride it out of this ballpark. Because that's not a short porch out there in left field by any means."
Mark Melancon, who let the Astros tie the score Saturday night, pitched a perfect eighth inning Sunday and Jason Grilli earned his major league-leading 17th save.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published May 19, 2013 8:15 PM