While the Chicago Cubs took an early 1-0 lead Thursday night, the Pirates (85-61) appeared in control of the team’s series-opener throughout. Jeff Locke tossed his best start since the All-Star Break, and the Pirates cruised to a 3-1 victory despite falling behind in the third inning by a one-run margin.
Locke kept the Cubs from recording a hit until Darnell McDonald led off the third with a ground-rule double into the Notch, and then scored from third on two-out single by Starlin Castro.
After that, though, Locke settled in and retired the final 10 men he faced to post seven innings of one-run baseball in which he allowed only three hits and walked a single batter while striking out five Cubs.
“It’s just better stuff,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You saw the rhythm, the tempo, the command. He was able to stabilize himself the last time out and find some rhythm, find some confidence.”
In support of Locke, the Pirates took the lead back from Chicago in the bottom of the fourth when Jordy Mercer singled with one out and Andrew McCutchen doubled on a ball that bounced off the third base bag. Mercer was cut down at home, though, when he broke on contact on a tapper to the mound by Justin Morneau.
Marlon Byrd then singled up the middle to score McCutchen, and Pedro Alvarez clanged a pitch from Chicago starter Chris Rusin off the bottom of the Clemente Wall to drive Morneau home from second and give the Bucs a permanent lead.
The game remained quiet the rest of the way, as Rusin (2-4) made it through seven innings as well and allowed two runs on four hits. But Locke (10-5) was a tad better Thursday, and he earned his first win since July 21 as a result.
While Rusin pitched well, the Pirates were able to capitalize when balls were left over the plate.
“He pitched well, there’s no doubt about it. But he left some pitches out there in that one inning and we put some good swings on it,” Jordy Mercer said. “We moved the bases pretty well, went first to third a couple of times. It was fun.”
Pittsburgh tacked on a spot of insurance in the eighth with a little bit of two-out lightning sparked by Clint Barmes’ basehit. Jordy Mercer followed with a double that went the opposite way to right-center, on which Barmes scored and the Pirates went ahead 3-1. Mercer, hitting out of the two-hole, finished 2-for-4 with a RBI.
The Bucs had a chance for more, as McCutchen was intentionally walked and Morneau drew another free pass on his own accord. With two outs and the bases loaded, Marlon Byrd struck out.
After Locke exited the game, Tony Watson worked a clean eighth innings and Mark Melancon came on for the save. Darwin Barney and Anthony Rizzo both got on base to lead off the inning, but Donnie Murphy popped a bunt up to Russell Martin, Junior Lake flew out to left, and Welington Castillo hit into a fielder’s choice which gave Melancon save no. 14 on the season.
Tonight, the most positive takeaway has to be for Locke, who hadn’t won a game in over a month and a half. If the Pirates get a version of Locke closer to the one they received in the first half than the one who posted a 8.02 ERA in the month of August, that will be a massive boost as they play their final 16 games.
“It definitely feels good to have that kind of game tonight, and like I’ve always said, most importantly we won,” Locke said. “I know it’s just the Cubs and not the Cardinals we played tonight, but we know that all these games are important from here on out.”