"He's working on consistency, we all know that," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Alvarez, who went hitless in his prior 10 at-bats before the dinger after having a 12-game hitting streak snapped Sunday. "We're watching a power hitter grow up."
Alvarez was hitting .183 against southpaws entering Wednesday. Just two of his 20 home runs had come against lefties, as well. But with Phillies lefty John Lannan on the mound, Alvarez delivered a swing the Pirates' offense needed.
"You can only improve with opportunities," said Alvarez, a former second-overall Draft pick who has played only one full season in the Majors. "You just try to learn from each instance, and that's what I intend on doing."
The Pirates leveled the score at 1 in the fifth when Russell Martin singled home Andrew McCutchen, who reached on an infield single. Alvarez then launched his 21st home run into the right-center-field bleachers to knock in three more and give Jeff Locke all the run support he would need.
Locke turned in another steady performance, which has become the norm, if not the expectation, for him. He scattered seven hits, two earned runs, three walks and two strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings, exiting with two on and two out in the sixth. Pirates starters have now allowed three runs or less in 17 straight games.
Kevin Frandsen singled off Justin Wilson after Locke was pulled, then Jordy Mercer couldn't handle Michael Young's ground ball, and the Phillies cut the Pirates' lead to just one before Wilson fanned Chase Utley to end the sixth.
For Locke, his explanation for his ability to work out of trouble is as simple as trusting himself and what he wants to do.
"A night like tonight, when they're hitting the ball pretty hard and finding some holes, you've just got to try to stay consistent," Locke said. "Don't teeter away from what you do well."
Pittsburgh got both those runs back in the bottom half. McCutchen -- who went 3-for-3 with two walks -- tripled with one out. Phillippe Aumont plunked Gaby Sanchez in the ribs and Martin ripped a double down the left-field line for one run. Jake Diekman's wild pitch allowed Sanchez to cross home for the other.
The Phillies struck first in the fourth, when Ben Revere's soft liner dropped in front of Starling Marte in left, and Domonic Brown scored. It brought Locke's home scoreless streak of 23 1/3 innings to a close. But Alvarez's homer was enough to get Locke the win -- he became the first pitcher in franchise history to not lose in 16 straight decisions. He hasn't lost since April 7 and is now 8-1.
Locke had pitched in just 12 big league games before April, and has been able to work out of jam after jam this season en route to being one the National League's best pitchers, statistically. He's got the team leading the Majors in defensive efficiency behind him, which helps, and it did again Wednesday. Martin's left leg halted Lannan's slide into home plate in the third inning to keep the game scoreless.
"He had the plate blocked off pretty well," Locke said. "What a fantastic relay, and Russ did his job back there."
Lannan allowed 11 hits and four runs over five innings. He walked three and struck out five. He stranded eight Pirates in the first four frames, but missed with a fastball up to Alvarez.
"I was in trouble and battled the whole time," Lannan said. "I just didn't make a pitch to Alvarez. It's a different ballgame if I make a pitch there, and that's what it comes down to."
Alvarez had the big swing, but McCutchen, who Hurdle said is still "waiting to get hot," had five good at-bats Wednesday. He saw 15 pitches total on his two walks, and just seven on the hits, jumping on pitches early. Last July, the center fielder hit .446 with a 1.249 OPS.
Jeanmar Gomez, a starter for the Pirates the last two months, allowed only a broken-bat single in the seventh, and Mark Melancon tossed a perfect eighth.
Jason Grilli closed out the game, allowing two runs on Brown's 22nd homer, for his 28th save of the season.