It took a while –10 big league starts and 67.2 innings to be exact — for Jeff Locke to notch his first Major League win, but the lefty rookie was able to get that notch that in his solid final start of the 2012 season.
Locke has come a long way from the left-hander that made his Major League debut with Pittsburgh last September against the now Miami Marlins. Locke tossed 16.2 frames in the big leagues last season. Getting his feet wet was a huge growing experience for him. The lefty started the 2011 season in Double-A Altoona, then made just five starts at the Triple-A level, where he posted a 2.22 ERA, before finishing the year up as a September call up.
“I feel much more confident this year,” Locke said. “I’m not sure if it’s because I spent two-third of the year last year in Double-A, short time in Triple-A. I don’t know, I just feel much more confident this year. I feel like I belong here.”
“I had a taste and you want to come back. That’s the biggest thing for me — I saw how great it was up here, saw what was going on up here last year. I wanted to get back. That’s how hard you’ll work in Triple-A to get through the day, get through what you’ve got to get through everyday. The workouts, the running, the throwing programs everyday, the relationships with your teammates, the catchers, just getting gritty, getting tough and getting in what you need everyday has been huge for me this year.”
After being assigned to Triple-A to start the 2012 season, Locke put together his best professional season since being drafted out of High School by Atlanta in the 2nd round of the 2006 draft. Locke posted a team-best 2.48 ERA over 24 starts with Indianapolis. He whiffed 131 batters with just 42 walks over 141.2 innings. Locke was even more impressive in his final 10, recording a 1.37 ERA, and four of those starts were shutouts.
“My maturity and composure,” Locke said of his biggest improvement this season. “It’s always tough when you get your back up against the wall, guys on base everywhere. It’s how you bounce back from that.”
Locke learned a lot this year from veteran starter A.J. Burnett.
“A.J. is a pro,” the young lefty said. “He’s been doing this for so long. He just competes. He knows and understands that you’re not going to feel the best every time out, and he brings what he has and competes with it. That’s something I pride myself on. Learning from him, just got to compete and keep your team in the game. Don’t lose any fight. I’m honored to be on the same team with him.”
Locke was a bit wild on Monday — five walks and a 31 pitch third inning — but overall was solid wrapping up his final start of the season. The lefty threw a perfect first, which included a swinging strikeout to Michael Bourn to start. He also induced a huge 3-6-1 double play in the second after walking back-to-back Braves with one-out in the second.
The lone inning that Locke ran into trouble came in the third. The lengthy inning got the Pirates bullpen to scurry for reinforcements, but Locke was able to escape the frame with allowing just one run. The trouble came with two-outs. A base hit and a walk put two runners on, and Jason Heyward ripped an RBI single up the middle to plate the first run. Chipper Jones drew the third walk of the game to load up the bases. But Locke was able to limit the damage and got a ground out to leave them stranded.
“I think there were a couple of things out there tonight that really helped his growth,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Getting through the third with giving up just one run was one of them. Going through that inning, another case of it seemed like another inning started to speed up on him…He’d get in a little bit more of a hurry. Fastball command would waver a little bit. But to be able to settle down.”
“He’s sitting on 31 pitches at that particular point in time in the inning to get the out. I’ve got a guy up in the bullpen to protect him this late in the season. I probably would have given him another hitter, but I mean, we’re getting close to where we’re starting to worry about his health. He pitched through that inning and he comes back. ”
Locke followed that lengthy inning up with a quick fourth, where he struck out two of the three batters he faced, and went on to retire 11 of his final 12 batters. Overall, Locke allowed one run on two hits over six innings in his final start of the season. He walked five and struck out six while throwing 105 pitches, 63 for strikes.
“Just took a deep breath in the dugout and settled down,” Locke said after what changed after the third. “You want to put your team in a chance to win every time out. And that’s something I pride myself on. I pride myself on making my start every fifth day. Whenever they give me the ball, I want to be ready to go. You can’t let innings like that kill you. Innings like that can take you out of the game fast. I was able to settle back down and go through more.”
“For me, the big push for him tonight was getting a one run lead, and going out and pitching through the heart of the order in the sixth inning,” Hurdle said. “And doing it pretty efficiently.”
“Feels really good,” Locke said of the first win. “But most importantly, it feels good to give the team a good chance to win today. And we did. It’s something to shoot for every time out…Sporadic at times, and bumpy at times, but able to get through it…It’s always good to finish on a strong note, and have the off-season to reflect on it. Just keep working to get better…I know I’ve got to go and compete every time out. They keep giving me the ball for a reason. Today, it paid off.”
Locke finishes the season with a 5.50 ERA over 51 innings in the Majors. He struck out 39 batters during that span. Locke has had mixed results in his big league outings this year, being attributed to battling through a big inning three of his six starts. Locke allowed five runs in each of those three, while allowing three or fewer runs in each of his other three starts. Locke tossed a two-run six-inning performance against Chicago, whiffed a Major League-high eight over a five inning performance against Houston, but also allowed six home runs over his first 24.2 innings.
“The one thing that’s gotten in the way of Jeff Locke has been the big inning,” Hurdle said on Sunday. “He’s not the first young pitcher that’s got to deal with that and work through that. Somebody just asked me in a phone interview, ‘what’s the biggest that I’ve seen in A.J. Burnett from the year in 2010?’…I said, ‘There’s no more big innings.’ The command has stepped up and there’s no more big innings.”
“Things just didn’t collapse out there,” Locke said.”Usually a walk, single, homer, double, something like that. And before you know it, I’m out of the game. Today I was able to take one pitch at a time, one hitter at a time. When I was back out there in the fifth and sixth, I knew it was my game to lose in a tight game like that. Feels good to pitch against the old organization…Comfortable feeling tonight. I felt really good about it.”
Locke was able to battle through the lengthy third, and stay away from the “big inning”. A good sign of the 24-year-old’s growth.
“I don’t think it’s going to get much better than that,” Hurdle said. “You’ve got the challenge of third inning. You got a team that is still on the brink. It’s a tough lineup. To get through the third inning, and then get through the sixth, very, very positive performance to end it up. Finished on [a] very good note.”
Marte Has Big Day at the Plate After Playing Time Cut
Staring Marte hasn’t seen as much playing time recently. Manager Clint Hurdle said that Marte has been working on some things to get back on track after a strong start in the big leagues before getting injured. That hard work paid off for the outfielder on Monday.
After striking out in his first at-bat against former Bucco Paul Maholm, Marte ripped a triple down the left field line in the third inning. The rookie showed off his impressive speed and almost legged out an inside the parker, but third base coach Nick Leyva put the breaks on him. In the fifth, Marte took a 2-1 pitch to dead center field for a leadoff home run. It marked his fifth of the season, and his first since August 8th.
“It was awesome to see,” Hurdle said. “Nothing better than seeing your guys work hard, then find their way and have success. Starling has basically been working on the same things up here that he’s working on down there. And he will continue to work on for the next 10-15 years that he’s in the big leagues.”
“They work extremely hard in the minor leagues. They put their time in. They put their prep work in. And then you got to come up here and probably do more of it. For him to have the swing that he had today, showed that speed again, and showed that power. That’s a hard hit ball to dead center field. Happy for him.”
Pirates May Send a Handful of Players to Winter Ball
Manager Clint Hurdle said that the Pirates have about 6-10 players in mind who they’d like to send to winter ball this offseason. Although he, nor General Manager Neal Huntington would mention names specifically, they did mention that a handful of players could benefit from the experience.
“We’re absolutely talking to people,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had very blunt conversations. There’s some guys that we absolutely think should go to winter ball. There’s some guys to encourage them that if the opportunity presents themselves. There’s probably somewhere 6-10 guys that we’ve talked to point blank about playing winter ball.”
The players can benefit from a wide range of things by playing out of the states. More at-bats, more reps and just more overall experience. Hurdle, who played in winter ball on numerous years when he was a player, is a huge advocate of sending players.
“I’m a big advocate of an American player and getting out of his comfort zone and going to another country where, you know what? They don’t really care where you’re from. They don’t care how you do it over there. You’re there. You’ve got to figure it out and fit in,” Hurdle said. “Great experience, not just on the field, but off the field as far as growing up and maturing.”
Some notable players that were sent last season included pitchers Chris Leroux and Tim Wood (Triple-A), along with rookies Matt Hague, Starling Marte as well as infielder Chase d’Arnaud.
“A guy that needs additional at-bats,” Huntington said. “A guy that missed some playing time because of injury. A guy that’s going down to work on something specific, some element to his game. There’s a number of reasons why players should go to winter ball. We’re obviously strong advocates of it. There’s different types of players that need to go. There’s players that should go. There’s players that can benefit from it. There’s also some players that should go home for a multitude of reasons.We make the collective recommendation as an organization. Work with our players. IF they chose to go, try to get them to maximize the most out of it the most they can. If they chose not to go, try to maximize the best off-season they can get.”
“We’ve got a handful of guys we’re working to place. Sometimes you want a guy to winter ball, and there’s not a spot for them. The leagues want established Major Leaguers first. Then they want guys that are four-A type that have been up and down. Then they’ll take the prospects from there. There are certain positions that are much harder to place than other positions. Part two of the equation is finding the right spot for guys. Do you want guys to go the full time? Do you want guys to go first half? Second half? It’s a bit of a puzzle that we have to put together. We’ve got some guys we’re working through right now. Can we place them? We’re working through some guys that we have placed. For how long?”
— The Pirates pitching staff recorded 226 strikeouts in the month of September — the most by the team in any calendar month in franchise history. The Pirates have established a club record for the most strikeouts in a season (1,167), breaking the previous total of 1,124 from 1969.
— With 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases, Andrew McCutchen is just the fourth player in team history to reach those total. The others? Dave Parker (30/20 in ’78), Barry Bonds (33/52 in ’90; 35/43 in ’91; 34/39 in ’92) and Jason Bay (32/21 in ’05).