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PIT@COL: Locke allows just two runs over 5 2/3 frames

The Pirates have already guaranteed their first winning season since 1992. They've boosted Clint Hurdle's managerial record above .500 (235-234) in his three years at the helm.

And Thursday, as they host the Cubs for the beginning of 11 straight games during the final regular-season homestand of the season, they've got a chance to set the franchise record for most wins at PNC Park.

"That one grabbed me," said Hurdle, whose squad returns home with a 45-25 record at home after going 45-36 there last season. "That's going to be it. It's gotten here. But we look forward to getting home in a much better position than we were at this time last year. It will be good to get home."

The Bucs have really excelled in long series, which bodes well for playoff forecasting, and have won six of eight four-game series on the season for a 22-10 record.

"Maybe [that trend] will stick," Hurdle said. "We have had some very good success, although we've been doing it backwards -- losing first then winning the next three, which is not the way you'd want to draw it up. I don't encourage anyone to follow that."

The Pirates' 7-5 win over the Rangers on Wednesday kept them one game back of the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central.

If Jeff Locke can turn the corner, the future would appear even brighter. Locke, who will take the mound Thursday, has fought command issues all season, but they've given him increased trouble since the All-Star break. Over his past 10 starts, Locked has walked 34 batters compared to 45 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings while posting a 5.44 ERA.

"Obviously, you can't keep putting the leadoff guy on base, I understand that," Locke said. "But there were a lot of other things I did [last time out] that I felt real comfortable with, to help me push forward."

While the Cubs are at the bottom of the NL Central largely in part to their offensive woes, the pitching staff is hardly to blame. The starting rotation ranks 12th in the Majors with a 3.89 ERA.

"There's a lot of things that are involved, but on the whole, the pitching has been basically average to above average," manager Dale Sveum said. "Our starters have been pretty good for most of the year."

On the mound for the Cubs in the opener will be Chris Rusin, the 26-year-old lefty who is still considered a work in progress, but he has baffled Major League hitters over 10 starts this season. He's allowed fewer than a hit per inning while posting a 2.89 ERA.

Pirates: Lineup boost
The Bucs' overall offensive numbers likely won't be dropping any jaws, but there's been a noticeable boost since the arrival of Justin Morneau from Minnesota and Marlon Byrd from New York.

Morneau, who was traded for outfielder Alex Presley on Aug. 31, went 4-for-5 with a double and two runs Wednesday batting out of the three-spot. He's 10-for-32 since the deal.

Byrd, traded with John Buck for Dilson Herrera and Vic Black on Aug. 27, was 2-for-5 as the cleanup hitter Wednesday and is 17-for-53 with eight RBIs in 14 games with the Pirates.

Cubs: Lake still hot
Junior Lake, 23, won't slow down. Lake singled Wednesday to extend his hitting streak to eight games as he leads all rookies in hits (61) since the All-Star break.

The youngster is impressing in his first Major League season and could make a case to be a more important fixture in the Cubs' future. Lake is hitting .313 with six homers and four stolen bases in 49 games.

"He's got tremendous raw ability," Sveum said recently. "We've witnessed that since the All-Star break. The power is there. You're talking about doing things, and people still have to get the 700 plate appearances to project anything. He has the power and ability to obviously hit 15 home runs."

Worth noting
• The Pirates will determine whether Charlie Morton (left foot plantar fasciitis) will be able to make his scheduled Friday night start based on how he comes through a bullpen session that took place prior to Wednesday's game.

• The Cubs have 33 victories on the road this season, 10 more than they had in 2012. Their 62 overall wins have exceeded last year's total by one.

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