Throughout his troubles, Jeff Locke's teammates encouraged him. Not to change his approach to find a solution, but to stay the course.
"I've had more encouragement, pats on the back, keep being yourself, don't change a thing, just try to get back to being right again, from everybody in this clubhouse," Locke said.
"Right again" referred to Locke's first-half form, which made him an All-Star. His start Thursday night was the closest to that form since late July, and it was good enough for a 3-1 Pirates win against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.
"That's the kind of game tonight that those guys expect because that's the kind of games they got in the first half," Locke said.
Locke (10-5) finished seven innings and allowed one run and three hits. He walked one, his lowest walk total since July 31, and struck out five.
"He was impressive," said Jordy Mercer, who went 2 for 4 with an double and an RBI. "There's no doubt about it. He was pounding the strike zone, mixed his pitches well, kept them off balance all day."
Locke had not finished six innings since July 26 and struggled while putting too many men on base. He had a 7.94 ERA in August and did not complete five innings in three consecutive starts that month.
He allowed base-runners in two innings, the third and the fourth, Thursday night. He retired every batter he faced in his other five innings.
"I pitch pretty much the same game," Locke said. "Nothing's changed. We haven't made up any new pitches, we haven't done anything differently. They hit balls hard tonight, but they hit them at people, too."
Cubs starter Chris Rusin needed only 79 pitches to finish seven innings. He allowed four hits in the fourth, leading to two runs, but no hits anywhere else. Pedro Alvarez and Marlon Byrd each drove in a run.
"We found a way to scratch out a couple runs there," manager Clint Hurdle said.
Locke held the Cubs hitless until the third, when Darnell McDonald led off with a double that bounced over the wall in left-center field. A ground ball allowed McDonald to take third. Locke had two strikes on Starlin Castro, but allowed an RBI single that gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
Locke's pitch to Castro, an inside fastball, was where he wanted it.
"We were going in," Locke said. "Maybe he's looking for me to go for the kill [inside] right there, or maybe he just got his hands inside the ball and hit it hard."
The Pirates responded in the fourth. Andrew McCutchen's double bounced off third base, driving Mercer, who had singled, to third. Mercer ran on contact on Justin Morneau's grounder right to Rusin and was thrown out. After that, though, consecutive singles from Byrd and Alvarez each brought home a run.
"Down one, to go up two, it let Locke just kind of settle in," Byrd said.
Two terrific defensive plays aided Locke. With two outs in the sixth, Donnie Murphy hit a grounder between second and third. Mercer backhanded the ball, jumped, turned and threw to first, just in time to beat the runner.
"We're just doing all we can do to keep [Locke] out there," Mercer said.
"He was in a rhythm. He was in a really good rhythm all night, and that's what we wanted to do, keep his rhythm."
At the beginning of the next inning, Junior Lake hit a hard liner to shallow center field. McCutchen, running in and to his left, laid out to make the catch and rob Lake of a hit.
"He's just amazing out there, the ground he covers," Byrd said.
"It lets the pitchers just throw the ball in the zone, and the defense take care of it."
Mercer's RBI double off Blake Parker in the eighth scored Clint Barmes and gave the Pirates an insurance run.
"In that situation, I wasn't trying to do too much. Luckily, I hit it into the gap and [Barmes] ran his tail off," Mercer said.
Tony Watson pitched a scoreless eighth and Mark Melancon earned his 14th save as he stranded two runners in the ninth.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 13, 2013 1:45 AM