The Pittsburgh Pirates shook off a sweep at the hands of one first-place team by sweeping another one.
Now they look to keep the momentum going against a last-place club as Jeff Locke tries to snap a winless streak of his own Thursday when the Pirates host the Chicago Cubs.
Pittsburgh (84-61) entered this week having lost four straight following a three-game sweep to NL Central-leading St. Louis. The Pirates recovered to win three in a row from AL West-leading Texas, capping a nine-game road trip with a 7-5 victory Wednesday.
“The thing I’m most impressed with is our consistency, our focus and our preparation,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It doesn’t waver. We didn’t come here with sweep on our mind. We came in here to win the first game.”
They’re still battling the Cardinals for the division lead and have a two-game edge over Cincinnati for the NL’s top wild-card spot, and the schedule now seems to get a bit easier. Pittsburgh is opening an 11-game homestand with four games against Chicago, owner of the Central basement, followed by four against sub-.500 San Diego.
“You see how close this race is, so that’s the way we’ve been taking it every day,” said Clint Barmes, who homered Wednesday. “And I don’t see that changing.”
Locke (9-5, 3.23 ERA) would like his fortune to change, having not won since July 21 for his longest winless stretch since beginning his career with an 0-6 record through nine starts.
The All-Star was briefly sent to Double-A Altoona, and Locke said he felt rejuvenated following his first start back with Pittsburgh on Saturday despite losing again. He gave up three runs - two earned - and three hits in five innings of a 5-0 defeat to St. Louis.
“This was a confidence builder for me going forward,” Locke said. “I was very excited to go out and pitch. It was nice to get a little break and I definitely feel like I was recharged.”
Hurdle also was encouraged, especially considering Locke had a 12.71 ERA in his previous three starts and failed to get through five innings in any of them.
“In the big picture, there were a lot of improvements in a lot of different areas,” Hurdle said. “The breaking ball played better. The changeup played better.”
Poor control continues to plague Locke, who tops the NL with 78 walks. He had four more Saturday and has 27 walks through 38 1-3 innings during his winless streak.
Locke yielded a career-high seven walks - but only one run and one hit - in 5 2-3 innings of a 4-1 loss to the Cubs on June 9. He has a 4.50 ERA without a decision in three starts against them.
Chris Rusin (2-3, 2.89) also will look to record his first win in more than a month. For the most part, the winless streak isn’t his fault, as the Cubs gave him a combined four runs of support in four starts leading up to Friday.
That’s when Rusin could only get through 3 2-3 innings, yielding two runs and seven hits in Chicago’s 8-5 win over Milwaukee.
Rusin picked up his first major league win the last time he faced Pittsburgh, allowing two runs in five innings of a 7-4 victory Sept. 14.
The Cubs (62-83) have hit .177 against the Pirates and trail the season series 7-5.
Anthony Rizzo struck out three times in Wednesday’s 6-0 loss to Cincinnati and is hitless in his last 14 at-bats. He has singled, doubled and homered in seven at-bats against Locke.