Jeff Locke has flirted with trouble all season long. He teased again Wednesday night, teetering on the edge of disaster while the game remained tight.
But as he has done all season, Locke made most of those jams disappear to lead the Pirates to a 6-5 victory against the Phillies at PNC Park and pick up his team-leading eighth victory.
"I've never escaped it before," Locke said of pitching through trouble. "This is the first year of my life that I've ever gotten away with my hands clean like I have this season."
After losing his first start of the season, he is the first pitcher in Pirates history to go undefeated in 16 consecutive starts.
Locke said he has been in every type of jam imaginable this season, in part due to a conscious effort to walk dangerous batters to bring up more favorable opposition.
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"Thankfully enough, I've whittled my way out of almost all of them," he said. "If that continues, wow, what a special thing that would be. I'm aware of their guys being on base and me being in jams. But the confidence I have to get through those jams is through the roof."
It helped Wednesday having a bit of run support, highlighted by Pedro Alvarez's 21st home run and a 3-for-3, two-run night from Andrew McCutchen.
It was the sixth home run in the past 11 games for the slugging third baseman, who started the season hitting .089 through the first 13 games. Now Alvarez leads the team in home runs and RBIs (56) and is having his name thrown around as an All-Star candidate.
"We're watching a power hitter grow up," manager Clint Hurdle said.
It was only his third home run this season against left-handed pitching -- long an issue for Alvarez. But he said his confidence is growing in those spots.
"It's a work in progress," Alvarez said. "It's one of those things you know you can only improve through opportunities and experience."
Whether Locke makes the All-Star team is to be determined. But he will certainly finish the traditional first half of the season as the Pirates' most effective starting pitcher.
In what was Locke's final outing before the All-Star teams are announced Saturday, he allowed three runs, two earned, on seven hits in 52/3 innings. He struck out two and walked three on 99 pitches.
It was like a lot of Locke's starts this season, in which the left-hander didn't dominate or keep runners off base. But he got help from his defense and made clutch pitches when he needed to.
Locke's 2.12 ERA is third in the National League. He was initially scheduled to pitch Tuesday but his start was pushed back a day after getting loose late in the Pirates' 14-inning victory Sunday.
The Pirates (52-31) powered ahead of the Phillies (40-45) with a four-run fifth and roughed up starter John Lannan, who allowed four earned runs on 11 hits in five innings.
Alvarez crushed a 1-0 fastball from Lannan (1-3) and parked it about five rows beyond the right-center field wall to put the Pirates ahead, 4-1.
Russell Martin sparked the inning with an RBI single, scoring McCutchen to tie the score with one out.
Jason Grilli allowed a two-run homer to Domonic Brown in the ninth but still picked up his NL-leading 28th save.
A picture-perfect relay helped the Pirates save a run in the third. With Lannan on first, Chase Utley crushed a ball off the wall in right-center. McCutchen grabbed it off the warning track, and threw to Neil Walker in shallow right.
Walker made an on-target throw home to Martin, who stuck out his left leg to block Lannan from touching the plate and tagged him for the final out of the inning.
"I told somebody in the dugout that was part of the plan," Locke said with a laugh. "Walk Lannan, have Utley take one off the wall, maybe they'll send him."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 4, 2013 2:45 AM