Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Locke, of Conway, N.H., throws to a St. Louis Cardinals batter during the second inning Sunday at Busch Stadium. Locke pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits, in Pittsburgh's 9-0 win. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)
Conway's Jeff Locke frustrates Cardinals
The Pirates' third-year skipper picked up the 700th win of his 11-season career in perhaps his team's best all-around performance this year.
Belting four homers and getting a career-high seven shutout innings from lefthander Jeff Locke, Pittsburgh moved into first place in the National League Central with a 9-0 rout of St. Louis at Busch Stadium.
"It just means I've been doing this for a while and have had some good players," Hurdle said. "We've played well here in the past. They're a good club, but we moved the chains in the right direction this weekend."
At 15-10, the Pirates matched a club record for wins in April with two games still remaining in Milwaukee. They also won for the fifth time in six games and are 5-2 on a 10-day, 10-game road trip which opened in Philadelphia.
Of course, Pittsburgh has opened the previous two seasons with promise, only to fade as the calendar flipped to August and September. After a 6-3, 19-inning win last Aug. 19 at St. Louis, the Pirates promptly lost six of seven and then faceplanted in September, going 7-21.
"It's just a little step forward," Hurdle said of winning this series. "We showered off our loss Friday, came back Saturday and kept grinding. We had two good efforts from the mound and put together some good at-bats."
Locke (3-1) got better as the game progressed, allowing just three hits and two walks while striking out four in a 95-pitch effort. It was the third straight win for Locke, who started 14 of his last 16 batters out with a strike.
It was the second straight lockdown effort on the road for Locke, who tossed six shutout innings Tuesday night in a 2-0 win over Philadelphia and Cole Hamels. Prior to that outing, Locke had yielded 18 hits, nine walks and nine runs in 15 2/3 innings
"Something had to change," he said. "The biggest difference was I've thrown strike one a lot more in the last two starts."
Locke also had plenty of support from his battery mate. Catcher Russell Martin belted two homers - a solo shot in the second and a two-run blast in the ninth - as he went 3-for-5 with three RBIs.
Between his prowess with the bat and his work with Locke, it was quite a day for the veteran backstop.
"The biggest thing you want to do is get your starting pitcher locked in," Martin said. "And anything you can do (at the plate) to help him out is a bonus. Jeff Locke pitched great. It was a continuation of what he did at Philadelphia."
Jose Tabata and Garrett Jones also cracked solo homers for Pittsburgh, while Pedro Alvarez tacked on a two-run single in the ninth. The Pirates drove starter Shelby Miller (3-2) out of the game after 5 2/3 innings and 113 pitches, then feasted on the struggling Cardinals' bullpen.
After Fernando Salas soaked up 2 1/3 innings and gave up Jones' homer, Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski coughed up five runs in the ninth. That drove the bullpen's collective earned run average to just over 6.00.
While closer Jason Motte hasn't pitched an inning yet because of a balky right elbow that might need season-ending surgery soon, the bullpen was still considered a St. Louis strength coming out of spring training.
"I still think we've got a good bullpen," Rzepczynski said. "We've had a rough month, but we've still got four or five months left."
St. Louis (14-10) pushed just two runners into scoring position, none reaching third base, and lost its first series since dropping two of three to start the season at Arizona.
While the Cardinals quickly turned the page on this one, Pittsburgh toasted Hurdle's milestone in the locker room.
"I didn't know about it until after the game," Martin said of Hurdle. "Any time you reach a milestone, it's special. So I tip my cap to the skipper."
NOTES: St. Louis second baseman Matt Carpenter started and went 0-for-4 after leaving Saturday's game in the ninth inning for a pinch-hitter due to a mild left oblique strain. ... Pittsburgh right fielder Travis Snider, who was scratched just before game time Saturday with discomfort in his left side, didn't play again on Sunday. It's not known if or when Snider will be able to play in Monday night's series opener at Milwaukee. ... After Sunday, the teams won't meet again until July 29, then play 14 times in a 42-day stretch.