In his first outing since being shut-down for the All-Star game thanks to tightness in his lower back, Pirates starter Jeff Locke pitched yet another solid game on Sunday, going six innings and allowing one hit, while walking four and striking out six batters as Pittsburgh salvaged the final game of the weekend series with a 3-2 victory over the Reds after dropping the first two in Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark.
Despite another pedestrian performance by the Pirates' chronically struggling offense, Locke (9-2) actually managed to pick up the win, thanks to some rare clutch-hits. Pittsburgh's hitters came into Sunday afternoon's game one for their last 26 with runners in scoring position. However, in the top of the seventh inning, in a 1-1 tie, Jordy Mercer singled to drive in Michael Mckenry with the go-ahead run. Later in the inning, Jose Tabata drove in the eventual winning run by singling home Mercer to give the Pirates a 3-1 lead.
All-in-all, Pittsburgh only tallied seven base-hits on the day, but when two of those hits are of the timely variety, that can make a world of difference for a team with the kind of pitching the Pirates have.
There's no question the Pirates have been scuffling a bit lately (just 6-9 since the nine game winning streak), but as I've said before, baseball teams scuffle over the course of a 162 game season, but good baseball teams know how to scuffle and tread water while they wait to get hot again. Salvaging one win in Cincinnati was important because, not only did it prevent the Reds from gaining three games in the NL Central/Wild Card standings, it was only the third game of a pretty long 10-game road-swing, and in my opinion, the longer a team goes without picking up its first win on a road trip, the greater chance that road trip has of becoming a disaster.
The Pirates now head to Washington for a four game series against the Nationals, a team that's 11.5 games back of Pittsburgh in the wild card hunt. Taking three of four would be nice, but this time of year (yes, it's only July 21st, but it's getting pretty late), just splitting the series would be beneficial as it would prevent the Nationals from gaining any real traction in the standings.
After the Nationals, Pittsburgh finishes off the road-trip with three games against the Marlins, a team that's sporting the second worst record in baseball.
The Pirates have been scuffling, but if they can do some damage over the next seven games, they can turn that weary scuffle into a confident shuffle.