CINCINNATI -- Win or lose on Sunday, the Pirates' goals of a winning season and their first playoff appearance in 21 years would've both still been very real possibilities, considering there's more than 60 games to play. But after winning more games before the All-Star break than any Pittsburgh team since 1972, the last thing the Buccos wanted to do was get swept by a division rival to begin the season's ceremonial second half.
Fortunately for the Pirates, they were able to avoid such a fate in the series finale, walking out of Great American Ball Park with a 3-2 win thanks to a strong return performance from starting pitcher Jeff Locke and some clutch hitting. The victory extended the second-place Pirates' lead over the Reds to three games in the National League Central and kept Pittsburgh within two games of first place St. Louis.
"There's still a lot of games left, but to come out and get this final game, I think, is big," said first baseman Garrett Jones, who hit his 10th home run of the season in the second inning. "Every game matters, and the more we can continue to have big at-bats like we did today with guys in scoring position, and our pitching that has been outstanding -- they keep doing what they're doing -- we'll get on a nice roll and win more than we're going to lose."
After the Pirates were plagued by missed opportunities in the first two games of the series, they finally broke through on Sunday. With the score tied at 1-1 heading into the top of the seventh, Jones struck out to start the inning, but Michael McKenry followed with a double off the wall in left-center field. That set up second baseman Jordy Mercer, who snuck a base hit up the middle to score the go-ahead run.
Mercer's RBI single snapped an 0-for-29 slump with runners in scoring position for the Pirates, who entered the game having gone 0-for-16 with men on second and third in the first two games of the series.
"We needed to get a couple hits with runners in scoring position," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Play three games and don't get any hits with runners in scoring position, could be a little problematic. We found a way to do that today."
With two more base hits in the seventh, including an RBI single by pinch-hitter Jose Tabata, the Pirates tacked on their third and final run, which chased Reds starter Homer Bailey from the game after what had been a solid outing.
"In that situation, I needed to put up a zero," Bailey said. "We made some really good pitches. It just didn't work out for us."
For the first time in the series, the Pirates struck first thanks to Jones' home run in the second inning. The blast was Jones' second in as many days and third against the Reds this season. He also went 2-for-3 with a double on Friday, and after a first half in which he batted .253 with a .302 on-base percentage, Jones said he's starting to feel more comfortable at the plate.
"I think I'm just one of the pieces that needs to pick it up," Jones said. "I had a slow first half, and this is the time to hit and be productive and help the team win."
Through four innings, the solo home run was enough to keep the Pirates on top with their All-Star Locke on the mound.
Making his first start since July 8 because of back stiffness -- which also kept him out of the All-Star Game -- Locke gave up a base hit and a walk in the first inning but retired 11 of the next 12 batters he faced. Although the single would end up being the only hit Locke surrendered, the Reds were still able to tag him for a run in the fifth.
Locke started the inning by inducing a groundout before walking the next two batters, who advanced to second and third on a sacrifice bunt. One out away from ending the inning, Locke bounced a knuckle curve that catcher McKenry couldn't handle, allowing the lead runner to score and even the game at 1-1.
The control problems that led to the back-to-back walks likely could be attributed to a hole that Locke kept landing in at the end of his motion that threw off his delivery.
"I couldn't get the ball over the plate," Locke said. "Two whole hitters where I was throwing a pitch and thinking, 'Maybe this one will be a strike or maybe this will stay up.' But it wasn't. So I said, 'You know what? I got to move over.' So I moved over to the far right side, because the plate's not moving or anything like that."
After the adjustment, Locke forced a Shin-Soo Choo popout to end the inning. When he returned for the sixth, he moved back to the left side of the rubber and retired the side on seven pitches to end his day.
Hurdle was impressed with the way Locke battled. More importantly, Locke said his back didn't give him any trouble during his outing, as he moved to 9-2 on the year.
"The back's great," Locke said. "Just going back to last week, pretty much proved to myself today that I stand by the decision that was made by the club and myself [to not pitch last Sunday]. It's more important to miss one start to feel healthy and hopefully feel good the rest of the season."
Following the rally that put the Pirates on top in the seventh, reliever Mark Melancon flirted with disaster by loading the bases with no outs in the eighth, but he induced a double play from Joey Votto to hold the Reds to one run in the frame.
Jason Grilli pitched the ninth to notch his 30th save, moving the Pirates to 57-39 on the season.
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.