If the past month has been an audition for Jeff Locke's future with the Pirates, he might have earned a callback.
Locke pitched six strong innings Monday night to earn his first career win as the Pirates beat the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, at PNC Park. He allowed one earned run on two hits, striking out six to improve his record this season to 1-3 and his career record to 1-6. He will compete for a spot in the rotation next season, but faces an uphill battle after struggling in most of his 10 career starts.
His start Monday was the best of his career, though he believes he has pitched better.
"I'm content with the win, happy with the win but not content with the performance," he said.
Though he pitched well, he was not always efficient. He was pulled after six innings having thrown 105 pitches, 42 balls. He walked five batters and pitched himself into trouble in the second and third.
"Effectively wild I think they like to say," Locke said. "I was all over the place at times, but able to not let them touch home plate many times."
The biggest difference between Locke's performance Monday and his past efforts was his ability to pitch out of trouble. He allowed his earned run and later loaded the bases in the third, but he managed to avoid a lot of damage.
"I think there were a couple things out there that really helped his growth," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And obviously getting through the third with only giving up one run was one of them."
Hurdle added Locke's ability to shut down the heart of Atlanta's order in the sixth -- after the Pirates grabbed a lead -- was impressive.
The 105 pitches were the most Locke has thrown in a major league appearance.
In past outings, Locke had been undone by big innings. Catcher Michael McKenry said Locke did a good job of slowing down the game. Locke agreed, saying he tried to calm down after a couple of early rough innings.
"I just took a deep breath in the dugout and settled down," he said.
Locke was able to locate his sinker on both sides of the plate, which generated a lot of soft hits, McKenry said. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Locke was "sneaky fast."
"Guys were coming back saying the fastball sneaks up on them a little bit," he said.
With the Braves loss, the Washington Nationals clinched the National League East Division. Gonzalez said the Braves, who have already clinched a wild-card playoff spot, likely will rest some regulars in the final two games now that the division race is over.
Former Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm was the loser, allowing two earned runs on seven hits in five innings. It was his third start against his former team and first since the Braves (93-67) acquired him from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline.
Starling Marte scored all of the runs for the Pirates (78-82). He smacked his fifth career home run in the fifth as the Pirates grabbed a 2-1 lead.
The leadoff hitter, Marte hit a 2-1 slider from Maholm over the wall in center field. It was Marte's first home run since Aug. 8 and the first Maholm has allowed since Sept. 12.
"For him to have the swing he got off [Monday night], showed that speed again and showed that power -- that's a hard-hit ball to center field -- I'm happy for him," Hurdle said.
Marte sparked the offense in the third and helped the Pirates pull even from an early deficit. He started the inning with a ground ball down the left-field line. Reed Johnson misplayed the ball in the corner, allowing Marte to advance to third for a leadoff triple. Chase d'Arnaud grounded out to shortstop, but got the ball deep enough in the infield to allow Marte to score to make it 1-1.
Jared Hughes earned his second career save, pitching a hitless ninth. Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli were unavailable, having pitched in back-to-back games.pirates
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter@msanserino. First Published October 2, 2012 4:00 AM