Jeff Locke broke into a grin before taking any questions.
“Happy to be back,” the left-hander said.
No one’s happier than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who used their formula from a highly successful first half — great pitching, just enough scoring — to salvage the final game of their series with Cincinnati Reds on Sunday. Locke allowed only an infield single through six innings of a 3-2 victory.
Second-place Pittsburgh left town with a three-game cushion over the NL Central-rival Reds, who won the first two games.
“There’s still a lot of games left, but to get this final game is big,” said Garrett Jones, who homered off Homer Bailey. “Every game matters.”
Locke (9-2) and the majors’ second-stingiest bullpen limited the Reds to three singles, but issued seven walks and let a run score on a wild pitch. Jason Grilli worked the ninth for his 30th save in 31 chances. His only blown save came in Cincinnati on June 19.
Locke had to miss his last scheduled start and couldn’t pitch in the All-Star Game because of a sore back. There were no problems when he got back on the mound.
“The back was great,” Locke said.
Bailey (5-9) struck out a career-high 12 but remained winless since his no-hitter against San Francisco at Great American Ball Park this month. Jones hit his second homer in two games, and the Pirates added a pair of runs in the seventh.
“That was the best I’ve ever seen Bailey,” Jones said. “His velocity was up, his cutter was nasty and he was hitting his spots well.”
The Pirates hit six homers during the series, all solo shots. It underscored their main concern as trade talks intensify: Can they score enough runs to make the playoffs?
“I’m just one of the pieces that need to pick it up,” said Jones, who has 10 homers after hitting a career-high 27 last year. “I had a slow first half and this is the time to hit and be productive and help your team win.”
The Ohio River rivals don’t meet again until September, when they play each other six times in the last nine games. Both hope they have a lot at stake when they get back together — the Reds trying for a second straight NL Central title, the Pirates trying to end their 20-year streak of losing records and reach the postseason for the first time since 1992.
They came away from their weekend series bunched a bit closer in their chase of division-leading St. Louis.
Bailey threw the first of his two no-hitters last Sept. 28 in Pittsburgh, a 1-0 win over a team he has dominated during his career. He threw his second no-hitter on July 2. Since then, he’s started three games — two on the road — and gone 0-3 with a 5.50 ERA.
Locke’s performance was encouraging for the Pirates, who have stayed in contention despite injuries in the rotation.