Locke's 1st victory in 2 months lifts Pirates over Cubs, 3-1

Travis Sawchik
| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

When the Pirates took the field in their first game after returning from an extended road trip Thursday, they were welcomed back to PNC Park with a lengthy, loud standing ovation. Observers who have followed the team for years could not remember a reception quite like it.

The Pirates began their last homestand of the regular season with a 3-1 victory over the Cubs.

The ovation was an expression of thanks for snapping a 20-season losing streak and for delivering meaningful September baseball. But the crowd was perhaps also imploring the Pirates to finish the job of securing a playoff berth and winning a division title. The Pirates entered Thursday a game behind the Cardinals, who played at home Thursday night versus Milwaukee.

The 11-game homestand is the last advantageous stretch of schedule for the Pirates, with eight games against sub-.500 teams.

A second standing ovation occurred in the seventh. The second rousing cheer was reserved for Jeff Locke when he walked off the mound after his best start — and first quality start — since July 26 in Miami.

“It was just better stuff,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Better rhythm, tempo and command. He was aggressive.”

Locke (10-5) allowed one run in seven innings. He surrendered three hits and one walk, and struck out five.

In earning his first win since July 21, Locke looked more the first-time All-Star he was in July than the struggling pitcher who was briefly demoted to Double-A Altoona at the end of August. The demotion was designed as a physical and mental break. There was concern the slightly built left-hander was wearing down.

“Nothing has changed,” Locke said. “I still go out there aggressively and attack.”

While fatigue wasn't seen in his velocity — his fastball touched 94 mph in San Francisco late last month — it might have been apparent in his lack of command. Locke's walk rate increased each of the past four months: May (3.3 walks per nine innings), June (4.2), July (5.2) and August (6.3).

Though Locke threw first-pitch strikes to just 12 of 25 batters Thursday, he often recovered; Locke threw 61 percent of his pitches for strikes.

“We didn't get ahead a ton,” Locke said. “But it was definitely better than it has been over the last month. … Was I pinpoint? Absolutely not.”

Locke said during his struggles he hadn't changed his approach. He is a pitcher who lives on the edges of the strike zone, and his margin for error is thin. But on Thursday, he did change his approach: He threw more changeups.

Twenty of Locke's 100 pitches were changeups, and he threw more changeups than curves, which goes against his typical pitch mix. Locke's changeup was deceptive inducing swings-and-misses from Donnie Murphy in the second and Anthony Rizzo in the sixth for strikeouts.

Locke was helped by his defense.

Andrew McCutchen began the seventh with a diving catch to rob Junior Lake of a hit. Loud chants of “MVP!” bubbled up from the crowd of 23,541. McCutchen doubled and scored on Marlon Byrd's RBI single to tie the game in the fourth.

Pedro Alvarez followed with an RBI single to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead against Cubs starter Chris Rusin (2-4). Jordy Mercer's RBI double in the eighth extended the Pirates' lead to 3-1.

Mark Melancon pitched the ninth for his 14th save, with the crowd rising a third time for the final out.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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