Extended Spring Training started today for the Pittsburgh Pirates. For some minor league players, this is a time to get some informal game experience before they eventually head to State College or the Gulf Coast League for their Spring debuts. For others, this is a time to make any last minute preparations for the 2012 season. That’s especially true in the first days for starting pitchers who are slated for a full season league.
Jeff Locke was one of those starters today, going five innings at Pirate City to maintain his schedule of throwing every five days. Locke threw five shutout innings, allowing three hits, no walks, and striking out two. He threw 56 pitches, with 36 going for strikes, and was 89-93 MPH with his fastball. But the outing wasn’t about the numbers, which have little meaning against short-season players. It wasn’t about the pitch count either. Today was about getting Locke five innings. It was about getting him used to getting up and sitting back down throughout the game, in preparation for the 2012 season in Indianapolis.
Locke started off in major league camp this year, but was sent down as one of the first cuts so that he could start that preparation.
“It’s almost like a blessing coming down from big league camp at the time I did,” Locke said. “Tough getting innings up there, especially being a starter, and a younger one. With all those talented players and older guys we had around it was tough on the bottom of the pole for a little while. To be able to be over here for pretty much the extensive part of Spring Training, build that pitch count up. Since I’ve been over here, I’ve thrown three innings, four innings, and five innings twice. I threw two innings [in big league camp].”
Today was the second time Locke threw five innings. He should make his debut in the Indianapolis rotation five days from now, in either the second or third game of the season.
“It definitely feels good. I’ve prepared myself ready to start the season,” Locke said. “I guess for focus on goals or anything like that, stay healthy, make a start every fifth day. That’s my chi. That’s the thing I want the most.”
When Locke first arrived in minor league camp, he immediately went to work in the bullpen with Pirates Assistant to the GM and former pitching coordinator Jim Benedict. His first day in camp he spent a bullpen session pitching with a right-hander at the plate, and Benedict watching on. Locke threw several curveballs during the outing, each time trying to break the pitch off inside against the right-handed Jeremy Farrell.
“I think that day actually Jeremy Farrell stepped in. He wanted to get a look at some pitches as well. It was just a perfect day,” Locke said of how the session worked for everyone. “Get up there, try to snap off some breaking balls. Get a good feel for where I need to start that pitch, for where I need it to end. I think that’s the big thing for me. You always know where you want to start it, but you don’t know where it’s going to end. It’s just learning more about yourself, learning more about being a professional. You can never stop working too hard on those things.”
The left-handed starter was focused on adding a little bit of a turn in his delivery, allowing him to get his weight back in sort of a Ted Lilly fashion.
“Just basically to get my weight back. I guess it has to go back to do that kind of Lilly-esque type turn,” Locke said of his movement. “And it’s just getting that pitch out. Not trying to throw from back here, or throw way too late. Just make everything like your fastball, try to let everything else ride off that. You know, obviously you gotta to have your fastball going that day, command wise anyway.”
Locke watched some video of Lilly, although it’s not a situation where he’s trying to copy the Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-hander, like we saw with Charlie Morton and Roy Halladay.
“He’s the comparable that I watched. Somebody that has obviously has a successful career, has been around,” Locke said. “Was able to see him pitch live last year in Los Angeles when I was up with the big club. Just love watching every lefty pitch, really. He’s somebody for me that, I don’t think stuff-wise it’s identical, but purposeful, it’s the same thing. He’s gotta get to his backside, he’s gotta get ahead to be effective, and I think that’s the same with me too. Some guys can go 1-0 and still be effective, and I’m not one of those guys. So you’ve got to know your strengths and you’ve gotta get ahead, stay ahead and put guys away.”
After making five starts in Triple-A last year, the Pirates promoted Locke to the majors. He struggled with his command, and definitely didn’t get ahead of opposing hitters in most of his outings at the major league level.
“I think it was a whole lot of things, all coming in to one,” Locke said of his major league struggles. “Off-balance a lot. Nervous. Trying to cope with the fact that I’m here, where I am. Because you dream of it all your life, and when you finally get there it was everything and more you ever expect, but you’re still looking for ‘What’s next? What’s after this?’ And there isn’t anything. It was very exciting, it was the best three weeks of my life, because of the guys I was able to spend it with. The Jason Grilli’s and Charlie Morton’s and the guys who want you to feel comfortable. [Joel] Hanrahan, everybody was great up there. They all wanted me to feel comfortable, because in the grand scheme of things, if I’m uncomfortable, the bullpen’s going to be uncomfortable. It was definitely a big adjustment, and a lot of learning, and a lot of trial an error I guess, and just realizing it’s the same game up there, but it’s still not.”
Locke will start the 2012 season back in the Indianapolis rotation, and he could find his way back to the majors at some point this year. In the last year he’s been focused more on pitching to contact and keeping the ball down, rather than trying for strikeouts, which resulted in a lot of fastballs left up in the zone. His curveball is a strong pitch, and if his new changes to the delivery can allow him to command the pitch better, it should result in a lot of ground ball outs, which will definitely get help his chances of returning to the majors.
**Brandon Cumpton started today, and also went five innings. Cumpton gave up two runs on six hits, with no walks and three strikeouts. He threw 62 pitches, with 46 going for strikes. Cumpton will head to Altoona tomorrow.
**Cumpton turned things around last year when he started focusing on pitching inside. Today he threw an inside pitch against Elvis Escobar, pushing the 17-year-old off the plate. Escobar didn’t back off, and stepped in to single up the middle on the next pitch.
**Sammy Gonzalez was behind the plate today, which was the first time I’ve seen him catching in a game. Gonzalez also singled against Quinton Miller. He then scored from first on a double by Walker Gourley.
**Daniel Cabrera pitched two innings, working on scenarios. The right-hander hasn’t pitched many innings this Spring after missing last year with Tommy John surgery. He’s in extended Spring Training to build his arm strength up.