Jeff Locke was pushed into the starting rotation on Monday at PNC Park so the club could get a good look at the young prospect as a starter. Locke made two relief appearances earlier last month with the Pirates and tossed a combined 4.1 scoreless frames in a role that he was unfamiliar with. But that experience allowed him to get his feet wet. Although the left-hander was a September callup last year, Locke is much more confident this season due to more experience at both Triple-A and in the Majors.
“I guess last year you deal with the nervousness, the anxiousness, the first time, all that stuff,” Locke said. “Coming out of the bullpen this year was something I’ve never done before. To work in that scenario in those situations, and then being able to get in here and start a game [helped]…Everything felt really good today. I felt I did a lot of things good, a few things bad and they took advantage of it. Everything is going to be just fine.”
Locke pitched better than his line indicated in his first Major League start of the season, and the fifth in his career on Monday. The rookie was charged with five earned on seven hits over five innings with a walk and six strikeouts. However, a bad call and a missed double play ball eventually hurt Locke’s chance to pitch a better game.
“It’s part of the game,” Locke said. “The game is based on human errors. There’s no machine back there making all the right calls or anything like that. You take the lumps. There’s times during the game when you throw pitches that aren’t strikes, called strikes. You just take the good with the bad and try to work on the positives and build off that.”
The Astros jumped on Locke in the first inning. Jose Altuve took the second pitch from Locke and ripped it up the middle for a base knock. Tyler Greene followed by laying down a sac bunt, but the shortstop ran out the throw from Locke to first for an infield single. Brett Wallace was next for the third straight hit off the left-hander. The rookie settled in, but an unlucky break forced in a run.
“You don’t wish to start a game off like that,” Locke said. “A few pitches into the game, and the bases are loaded, stuff’s going everywhere. I only limited them to a run. That was big. It’s always about minimizing the damage when you’re a starter.”
Justin Maxwell hit a chopper back to the mound, Locke was able to throw home for the force out. His next batter hit another chopper back up the middle, this time out of the reach of Locke. Brock Holt fielded the ball and attempted to tag out the runner heading to second, but the runner avoided the tag and was arguably out of the baseline. Holt’s only play was to first base allowing a run to score.
“He said he was not out of the baseline,” Manager Clint Hurdle said of the umpire. “He made a bad call. That’s what he did. He was out of the baseline. We didn’t get the call.”
“I thought he kept his poise. Bases loaded no outs, stayed in there. Really handled the situation very well I thought in the fist inning, one we would have gotten out of if we get a different call at second base.”
Locke settled down and whiffed two in the second inning — Brandon Barnes looking on an 0-2 curve, then whiffed the pitcher Edgar Gonzalez 0-2 on a fastball in the 10 pitch frame. In the third, Locke gave up a second run on a RBI ground out. But after giving up the run with two-outs in the third, Locke struck out three of his next four batters, two looking.
A bobbled ball from Clint Barmes hurt Locke in the three-run fifth inning. After giving up a base hit to right, Greene singled to short, for what could have been an inning ending double play. Barmes, however, couldn’t get the ball out of his glove right away, and his rushed throw to first base pulled Gaby Sanchez off the bag allowing the runner to be safe.
“It’s going to be hard to turn two I think,” Hurdle said. “It would have been nice to see us try it. We had a shot at shoveling over to second then follow it to fist. We didn’t get either out. There was a play there to be made, we needed to get an out and we didn’t get one. It could have been a possible double play.”
Locke’s next batter took the first pitch and deposited it into the seats in right center field for a three run homer.
“A hanging curveball to Wallace,” Locke said of the home run ball. “He took two fastballs for singles. I had to do something a little bit different there, and hung a curveball. He hit it out. It was just that one pitch really was the really thing that sticks out to me. Everything else felt pretty good. Felt like I changed speeds well, kept them guessing. Felt really good. Had a lot of confidence in there, even after that first inning.”
“Unfortunately in Jeff’s case, he hung a breaking ball,” Hurdle said. “I thought he pitched well. He had one walk, six strikeouts. Used his fastball really well, changed speeds really well. The one left-hander in the lineup was the guy that stung him the most…18 out of 23 first pitch strikes.”
“All in all, I thought he gave us a shot to do something good today. He should walk away knowing that he did some good things out there.”
Hurdle’s Message Remains to Keep it One Day at a Time
Manager Clint Hurdle is trying to keep the team loose during playoff contention. Some of the players in the clubhouse have gone through it, but for the most part, a lot of them haven’t.
The Pirates entered game action on Monday just 1.5 games back of the second wild card spot in the National League Central. But despite the pressure that comes along with it, the focus remains one day at a time.
“We’ve really just continued to focus on taking care of today,” Hurdle said. “This game gives you a chance to be great everyday. What happens if you don’t win a game, how frustrating is it? You know, you’ve got to pitch, you’ve got to play defense and you’ve got to play offense. That triangle’s got to be put together to win games up here. Once in a while you can win a game when one of those parts are missing. Let’s just focus on putting the triangle together today.”
“When you don’t put the triangle together, what can you expect? You’re at the mercy of the game. You only come up with 2/3 of the triangle, you’ve got a better chance of losing more often than winning.”
Hurdle makes no excuse for the pressure put on the club to pull out of their current funk. After losing to the Astros on Monday, the club has now lost four straight and have won just three of their last 13 games. But despite the tough stretch, the club is still within reaching distance for the Wild Card.
“The pressure gets poured on you everyday because the game wants to show you that you’re not good enough,” Hurdle said. “So the chance to be great never goes away, and the pressure never stops. That’s the beauty of what we’re doing out here and what we’re trying to build. And that’s all I continue to do with these guys is keep telling them to embrace this.”
“It’s not about wrestling with it, it’s about embracing, growing up with it, having each other’s backs, finding a way to stay positive even if you’re not. Sometimes the walk is just as important. Just portraying, ‘I got this.’ Inside, you know, you’re a mess. But I got this, tell me you got it. That’s part of the growing up process and we’ve got some older guys out there that have gone through it, that are helping [the younger players] with it.”
— Jeff Karstens (hip) is playing catch on flat ground right now and continues to do therapy treatments on his injury, which has forced him to miss at least one start in the rotation.
“Until there is more time involved, we’re not scheduled to get him on the mound yet,” Hurdle said.
— Neil Walker (low back) took a step forward on Monday after having his best day on Saturday, Hurdle said. The second baseman underwent baseball activity, but ramped up his workout. It’s possible that Walker could return to the field this weekend when the club plays Chicago.
“[There was] more improvement yesterday,” Hurdle said. “We feel like we’re in a spot where we can get him three solid days of baseball activity. Possibly some work on Thursday as well. There’s a chance he can get back on the field by this weekend.”
“His back finally feels good, so we weren’t going to do any baseball activities until a complete freedom of movement and strength back in that spot. He’s got that. He’s going to play catch, He’s going to activate in the cage and swing the bat in there. We’re not on the field today, but he’s going to try to get out and do some running around, some movement, some comprehensive testing, agility drills, ground balls if there’s no limitations. It will be a full work out on.”
— Starling Marte (oblique) is doing well, Hurdle said. The outfielder ran the bases before the game on Monday, sprinting to first, first to third, etc. Marte could see a rehab assignment with Triple-A in a few days.
“That’s the last pieces of the puzzle to come together for him,” Hurdle said of Marte being able to run the bases today. “He could go out as early as Wednesday in a rehab [assignment].”
— Chad Qualls (big toe) made his first rehab appearance with Triple-A on Monday. The right-hander struck out the side in an inning of work.