Jeff Roberson, Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — Jeff Locke felt like a new man Saturday night.
The Pittsburgh left-hander returned from an 11-day break with a solid effort in the Pirates' 5-0 loss at St. Louis.
Locke, who last pitched on Aug. 27, allowed three runs, two earned, on three hits over five innings. He struck out four and walked four.
"I felt refreshed," he said. "I was very excited to go out and pitch. It was nice to get a little break and I definitely feel like I was recharged."
Locke was sent down to the Pirates' Double-A team in Altoona on Aug. 28 to clear his head, according to Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle. He did not appear in a game there.
Still, the move appears to have worked.
"In the big picture there were a lot of improvements in a lot of different areas," Hurdle said. "The breaking ball played better. The changeup played better. He was able to answer well and put some (good) things back in place that we had seen from him before."
Locke, who gave up 16 earned runs in his three previous starts prior to the break, allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base in all five innings against the Cardinals. Yet he was able to avert any major damage.
"This was a confidence builder for me going forward," he said. "I felt good with the way that I felt out there."
St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright broke out of a two-game slump and David Freese homered to lead the Cardinals to their third win in four games.
The victory moved the Cardinals into first place, a half-game ahead of the Pirates in the NL Central. Pittsburgh has lost four of six including the first two of the three-game set. The Pirates remain stuck on 81 wins, one shy of assuring them a winning record for the first time since they went 96-66 in 1992.
Wainwright (16-9) had given up 15 earned runs over his previous two starts, both against Cincinnati. He allowed a career-high nine runs in two innings of a 10-0 loss Aug. 28. But he regained his form against the Pirates allowing just two hits. He struck out eight and walked two.
"The way to make pitching as simple as possible is to repeat your delivery and execute your pitches," he said. "My stuff tonight was drastically different because of that."
Wainwright, who retired the last 11 batters and ended his performance with four successive strikeouts, is tied with Jordan Zimmermann of Washington and Jorge De La Rosa of Colorado for the most wins in the NL.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny was pleased to see his ace return to form.
"That's the same guy we expect to see every time out," he said. "He had it all working."
Wainwright fashioned a 16.88 ERA in his two previous starts.
"This time he was aggressive," catcher Yadier Molina said. "This is a long season and everyone is going to have slumps. He's a tough guy. He's going to battle."
Wainwright threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of 24 batters. He gave up a single to Andrew McCutchen in the first and a double in the fourth.
Hurdle was not surprised to see Wainwright bounce back.
"He was down in the zone all night, he wore it out," Hurdle said. "He did what he's done for years."
Freese drove in two runs for the Cardinals, who moved into sole possession of first place for the first time since Aug. 29. Matt Holliday, Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso also added RBIs.
"We've been back-and-forth with them all year," Wainwright said. "Any time you can win against them, it's a big win."
Freese homered off reliever Jeanmar Gomez in the sixth to push the lead to 4-0.
Molina started a two-run outburst in the fourth inning with a double that followed a leadoff walk to Carlos Beltran. Freese then brought in Beltran with a sacrifice fly to left. Kozma added an infield single to bring in Molina.,
The Pirates are 9-9 over their last 18 games and they remain confident.
"We need to step it up, to get going again," McCutchen said. "We've just got to keep battling."
Hurdle agreed, "We don't expect to go away. We just need to play better."
Notes: RHP Michael Wacha (2-0, 3.20) will face Charlie Morton (7-3, 3.00) in the final game of the three-game series on Sunday. ... Pittsburgh has hit an NL-leading 79 home runs on the road. ... The Pirates have out-homered St. Louis 19-5 in the 18 games between the teams this season. ... St. Louis had nine successive hits in a seven-run seventh inning during Friday's 12-8 win. The nine in a row is the most by any team in the majors this season.