PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jeff Locke allowed three hits over seven innings to earn his first victory in nearly two months and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs 3-1 on Thursday night.
Locke (10-5) struck out five and walked one to help the Pirates win their fourth straight as they try to catch first-place St. Louis in the NL Central. Mark Melancon worked out of a two-on, none-out jam in the ninth for his 14th save.
Jordy Mercer went 2 for 4 with an RBI double for Pittsburgh. Marlon Byrd and Pedro Alvarez each added an RBI single.
Chris Rusin (2-4) gave up two runs and four hits in seven innings for the Cubs.
Locke was an All-Star in July but hadn't won since beating Cincinnati on July 21. He struggled through August and never worked more than 5 2-3 innings in any start as his ERA rose from 2.11 to 3.23.
The left-hander stressed he wasn't fatigued and appeared to find something last week against St. Louis, giving up just two earned runs while battling through five innings. He carried it forward against the Cubs, who were coming off an impressive series win against the Reds.
Working both sides of the plate crisply — a hallmark of his stellar first half — Locke ran only into minor trouble against the Cubs. Darnell McDonald hit a ground-rule double to lead off the third and later scored on an RBI single by Starlin Castro. Otherwise, Locke had his way with Chicago thanks to more than a little help from his defense.
First baseman Justin Morneau scrambled into shallow right field in the fourth to make a snow-cone catch on McDonald's looper. Mercer made a spectacular jump throw from deep shortstop to nip Donnie Murphy in the sixth, and Gold Glove center fielder Andrew McCutchen slid on his belly to corral Junior Lake's sinking liner in the seventh.
They were the kind of plays Locke wasn't getting during his six-week swoon. They are the kind he'll have to rely on if the Pirates want to emerge from a three-way battle with St. Louis and Cincinnati with their first NL Central title.
Pittsburgh clinched its first winning season in 21 years during an exhausting nine-game road trip that concluded Wednesday with a three-game sweep of Texas.
The Pirates were given a lengthy ovation when they walked onto the field, as a crowded PNC Park in mid-September — a rarity over the last two decades — let a generation of frustration out in 30 seconds of pure joy.
Rusin did an admirable job of trying to spoil the fun. The 26-year-old is part of Chicago's future. He pitched that way once again against a team that typically batters left-handers.
The Pirates came in hitting .266 against lefties but only roughed up Rusin in the fourth as Byrd singled home McCutchen, and Alvarez singled to deep right to bring home Morneau.
NOTES: Pittsburgh All-Star closer Jason Grilli will work in middle relief for the time being as he works his way back from a right forearm injury. Melancon will remain the closer while LHP Tony Watson and RHP Kyle Farnsworth work in setup roles. ... Pittsburgh LHP Wandy Rodriguez threw 67 pitches in a simulated game. Rodriguez hasn't pitched since June 5 due to discomfort in his arm. ... The Cubs have switched to a six-man rotation for the final two-plus weeks of the season to give RHP Scott Baker more work. Baker is recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery. ... The series continues Friday when Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.44 ERA) faces Chicago's Jake Arrieta (2-2, 4.28).
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP