CINCINNATI — Jeff Locke broke into a grin before taking any questions.
"Happy to be back," the left-hander said.
No one's happier than the Pirates, who used their formula from a highly successful first half — strong pitching, just enough scoring — to salvage the final game of their series with 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 NL Central rival Cincinnati, which 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 and the majors' second-stingiest bullpen held the Reds to three singles but issued seven walks and let a run score on a wild pitch.
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 struck out a career-high 12 but fell to 0-3 in his three starts since his no-hitter against the Giants at Great American Ball Park on July 2. Jones hit his second homer in two games, and the Pirates added two 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.