Bob Smizik: McCutchen, Harrison and a Locke-down performance

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In the world of the Pirates, it definitely was a night for the return of ...

• Jeff Locke: After five starts in which his ERA was 6.00 and he faced a future either in Indianapolis or the bullpen, Locke returned to the realm of the very good with a second consecutive impressive start.

• Andrew McCutchen: After going hitless in his first nine at bats since coming off the disabled list Tuesday, McCutchen returned to his MVP form with a single and a home run in consecutive trips to the plate.

• Josh Harrison: After going 6-for-26 in his previous five games, Harrison reheated to the sizzle that has marked much of his 2014 season with three hits, including a home run, and five RBIs.

Understandably, it was enough to provide a second straight win for the Pirates, 8-3, over the first-place Milwaukee Brewers last night at Miller Park. The question of the day, of course, is this: Is it enough to return the Pirates to status of legitimate contender as opposed to free-falling pretender.

The two consecutive wins follow, as is well known, seven straight losses, which means the jury is definitely out on this most recent surge. But the signs are encouraging.

Locke kind of mirrors the Pirates. No one knows which way he or his team is going to be moving in the future. Like last year, when he was one of the best pitchers in the National League before the All-Star Game and one of the worst after it, no one was quite sure which Locke will show up to pitch.

In a spot start in May, Locke gave up six runs in 5 1/3 innings, a 10.13 ERA. When he returned full-time to the rotation in June, he reeled over seven straight starts that were outstanding, as a 2.13 ERA would indicate. And then came the disastrous five-start stretch beginning July 20 in which his ERA was 6.00 and he gave up eight home runs in 30 innings. That’s when the threat of demotion hung fully over him.

But that talk was quelled by 5 1/3 scoreless innings against Washington last Saturday and a strong six innings last night in which he allowed two runs -- a first-inning homer by Ryan Braun -- on two hits but with six walks and no strikeouts.

It wasn’t just the mini-slump coming off his DL stint that made McCutchen a minor cause for concern. Until he singled in the third inning, he had a .197 batting average since the All-Star Game with an OPS under .600. Those numbers are most unMcCutchen-like and with this performance he might be ready to resume the MVP pace he was on before the ASG.

Harrison’s history is such that every time he goes into even a mini-slump the concern is he’ll revert back to the less-than-average hitter he was before this May. But as he has done other times this season when there was reason for concern, Harrison erased the fears. He doubled in the second to drive home two runs, singled in the fourth to bring home another and homered with Starling Marte on base in the eighth.

The win moved the Pirates to within five games of the Brewers. With wins by Atlanta and San Francisco and a loss by St. Louis, the Pirates remain fourth in the wild-card standings.

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• Playing some unusual percentages, manager Clint Hurdle started Gaby Sanchez against Milwaukee right-hander Yovani Gallardo. Sanchez was 8-for-33 in his career against Gallardo. Left-handed hitting first basemen Ike Davis and Pedro Alvarez were 0-for-8 and 2-for-29, respectively. Additionally, the right-handed Sanchez had an OPS 116 points higher than left-handers against Gallardo. Sanchez had a hit and a walk in five plate appearances.

• The bullpen was not exactly crisp behind Locke. After Jared Hughes allowed a hit in the seventh, John Axford gave up a run on three singles in the eighth and Justin Wilson walked two in a 19-pitch ninth inning.

• Edinson Volquez, 10-7 with a 3.58 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP, pitches for the Pirates tonight against Wily Peralta, who is 15-7 with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. The Pirates have won in eight of the past 10 starts by Volquez. The Brewers have won in six of Peralta’s past seven starts.

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