Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 7/22/13
Jeff Locke Jeff Locke returned to the mound with a strong performance as he helped the Pittsburgh Pirates avoid a sweep with a 3-2 win against their division rival Cincinnati Reds on Sunday at Great American Ball Park. The Pirates offense has been less than sub par in recent weeks but they had just enough to fuel the fire and salvage a game from the Reds. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Pirates were 0-for-29 with runners in scoring position. That all changed in the seventh when Michael McKenry doubled and scored on Jordy Mercer’s single, putting the Pirates ahead 2-1. Pinch-hitter Jose Tabata followed with a single, scoring Mercer. The Pirates still struggled at the plate despite coming up with some clutch hits. Reds starter Homer Bailey struck out 12 batters and walked only one. Many of the strike outs came on pitches well outside the strike zone. Both are trends the Pirates are familiar with. The Pirates offensive woes don’t appear to be resolving themselves anytime soon, so pitching will be the key if they plan on staying alive in the wild NL Central battle. Locke pitched six innings of one hit baseball. The only hit came in the first inning and was followed by a walk. He went on to retire 11 of the next 12 batters he would face. Locke issued the back-to-back walks with one out in the fifth. Bailey bunted the runners into scoring position, and Zack Cozart scored from third on a wild pitch by Locke that bounced past Michael McKenry tying the score 1-1. If the Pirates stand any chance of a successful second half, they need Locke and the other Pirates starters to continue to turn out stellar performances. One question that many struggle with is whether Locke can hold up for an entire season? Locke was  scratched from the lineup on July 8th and missed pitching in the All-Star game due to a sore back. That left the health questions swirling. With Sunday’s strong outing, Locke put those questions to rest. His back withstood the test and his arm carried Pittsburgh to a victory. The Pirates bullpen will also play a crucial role in the future of the team. Throughout the first half of the season, the self-named Shark Tank has been one of the best bullpens in baseball. The bullpen shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Pirates relievers have allowed just two earned runs in their past 26 1/3 innings. Pittsburgh really needs to add a bat at the deadline or they need players to pick up their game.  Garrett Jones hit a solo blast on Sunday, which was his second home run in as many days. If Jones can find his swing, the Pirates offense will get a big boost with the ability to add power.. Another question lingering for Pirates fans is how much longer is Brandon Inge going to be around? Inge is batting .181 and is terrible coming off the bench. He went 0-for-1 on Sunday as a pinch-hitter. There are questions of whether Inge will remain with the team when Neil Walker returns this week. The Pirates could release the veteran and bring up Alex Presley or keep Josh Harrison on the roster. Both are upgrades over Inge. McKenry went 2-for-4 on Sunday, which included a double in the seventh. If McKenry can find that pop in his bat from last season, the Pirates could see their bench improve some. Those are all a lot of questionable areas for Pittsburgh. As long as the pitching holds up, the Pirates could find themselves in the post season for the first time in 20 years.    

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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