Bucs top Braves as Locke earns his first win

Bucs top Braves as Locke earns his first win

Bucs top Braves as Locke earns his first win
PITTSBURGH -- The tease of 2013 has already begun at PNC Park, the site on Monday night of one of those poignant spins of baseball's eternal cycle.

Passing through on his way out: Atlanta's retiring Chipper Jones; exit stage right.

Making their marks on the way in: Pittsburgh rookies Starling Marte and Jeff Locke; enter stage left.

While Marte's home run and triple keyed a modest attack, Locke pitched two-hit ball for six innings to pick up his first Major League win as the Pirates downed the Braves, 2-1.

Locke, the former member of the Atlanta organization acquired in 2009 as part of the package for Nate McLouth, thus outdueled former Pirates lefty Paul Maholm.

There was one more spin at the very end: Jared Hughes, another Pittsburgh rookie, albeit one who has been integral all season, got his wish of getting to face Jones, in a most critical meeting.

With Joel Hanrahan getting a bye after pitching on consecutive days, Hughes got the ninth-inning call, and the first man he saw was Jones, who grounded out to kick-start the second save of the rookie's career.

"I wanted to stick to my strength, because he can pretty much hit anything. I have a ton of respect for him," Hughes said. "A great hitter. When you're getting ready to go in, you know who is coming up. So I knew he was the first guy in, and I'm glad I got to face him."

The win was No. 78 for the Bucs. A .500 record may be out of reach, but that is the team's highest win total since the same number in 1999.

The loss eliminated the Braves from contention for the National League East title, so they will instead enter the postseason as the league's No. 1 Wild Card.

Marte has been holed up in batting coach Gregg Ritchie's and Clint Hurdle's laboratory between starts -- Monday's was only his third in nine days -- and whatever he has been working on must've helped.

He snapped a 1-1 tie, which he had helped create, with a leadoff homer in the fifth, his fifth of the season.

"It's great when you see guys work hard and find a way to have success," Hurdle said. "Starling has been working on the same things up here that he worked on down there [with Triple-A Indianapolis] and will probably continue to work on for next 10-15 years."

Locke secured that elusive first win in his 10th big league start, in time to avoid comparisons to Tommie Sisk, whose 11 consecutive winless starts from 1962-65 constituted the most at the start of a Pittsburgh pitcher's career.

"It'll be great just not to have to hear about that any more," said Locke, who had been 0-6 in those nine previous starts. "It feels really good. They keep giving me the ball for a reason, and today it paid off."

Locke held Atlanta to a run for his six innings, while striking out six and working his way around five walks. Those walks -- compared to the total of six he had issued in 28 1/3 previous innings -- were one aspect of what was a strange breakthrough start for Locke.

No one could argue with the net result, or the aggressive manner in which he went after the Braves. He threw 12 first-pitch strikes to the 23 batters he faced -- yet several of those at-bats wound up included in the seven three-ball counts with which he had to deal.

The term "being effectively wild" came to mind -- to all the participants. There is such a thing as throwing too many strikes.

"Yeah, 'effectively wild,' they like to say," Locke said. "I was all over the place at times. But I didn't let them touch home plate many times."

Echoed Jones, who was 0-for-2 with a walk against Locke, "He struggled with command. He was effectively wild. He got himself into a couple jams, but he didn't throw anything fat over the plate where we could get good swings on him."

"Maybe it did help," Hurdle said of Locke's erratic spells. "I know pitching inside helped; he was moving some people around."

Naturally, those deep counts jacked his pitch count to 104 by the end of the sixth, so he had to leave the fate of his first win in relievers' hands.

Jeff Karstens led off for the bullpen in the seventh, and lefty Tony Watson handled the eighth, before Hughes got his opportunity.

The Pirates got on the board in the third thanks to the latest instance of one of their most exciting plays of the last two months: a Marte triple. After Marte led off with his sixth triple -- in 37 games started, compared to NL leader Angel Pagan's 15 in 151 games -- Chase d'Arnaud scored him with a grounder to short.

Atlanta had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of that inning with a two-out rally converted by Jason Heyward's RBI single.

When Marte's homer to straightaway center gave him his first lead, Locke was determined to keep it.

"Tonight things didn't just collapse," said the lefty, who had been prone to big innings. "I was able take it one pitch and one hitter at a time. In the fifth and sixth innings, I knew it was my game to win or lose."

He already knew how it felt to lose tight games. Monday night, he learned how winning felt. It is a sweet sensation that will stay with him for months.

"It will make the offseason feel a lot better, that's for sure," Locke said following his last start of the season. "It's good to finish on a strong note, and have the offseason to reflect on it."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.