Jeff Locke had a bit of a rough outing today at McKechnie Field. The left-hander was hit hard, with eight hits in 3.1 innings, although he managed to limit the damage with only two runs allowed. Part of the low run count was due to Phil Irwin stranding two in the fourth, after Locke gave up a walk and a double to lead off the inning. Locke got a groundout for the first out, but the Pirates called on Irwin to get out of the jam.
“His command wasn’t what he wanted,” Clint Hurdle said of the outing. “Even the pitch sequences at times didn’t really play out well for him. He really had to battle through some challenging situations on the mound. He pitched out of the stretch a lot today, and he pitched behind in the count a lot today. At the end of the day he was able to walk away and we were still in the game. He got his pitch count up where we wanted it. Just some good things happening.”
Locke left the game with the Pirates down 2-0, and they eventually came back and won 4-3. He was throwing all of his pitches today, with a lot of two-seam fastballs, but also mixing in the curve and the changeup.
“Everything felt good today,” Locke said of his pitches. “I went about my routine the same way, and attacked hitters I felt pretty well. Obviously left some balls up, and that’s going to hurt you at times. Sometimes you get away with it, and sometimes you don’t. Today was not a whole lot of getting away with mistakes.”
Locke said he felt like the fastball was good when it was inside, and when it was down and away. However, there were a few times when he elevated the pitch, which led to some hard hit balls. In the third inning, Lew Ford crushed a home run to left field with one out on an elevated fastball. Connor Jackson followed that with a hard single to left-center, and Steve Pearce was next with a line drive double off the wall in left. Locke picked up two strikeouts to get out of the second-and-third jam.
“I feel like I’m not getting to my backside as well,” Locke said of why he was elevating the fastball. “I’m rushing through my delivery. Those are small corrections that need to be corrected right after it happens, and today I didn’t do a good job of that.”
Last year Locke added a new turn to his delivery, aimed at angling the ball down and getting better command of his fastball. The turn — which is a bit extreme, with Locke showing his entire back to the hitter — is aimed at getting to his backside easier.
“The only thing that gets away from me a little bit is during the game, the little rush. Almost like you’re so excited to throw the pitch that you just don’t get to your backside or really get angle on the ball,” Locke said. “It happens to everybody. In-season, in Spring, in instructional league. Doesn’t matter where you are. Pitching is all about timing, and sometimes you’re just off timing a little bit. It’s to be expected. For the most part I threw some pitches today that were up in the zone, and they hit them.”
Locke is currently battling for one of the final spots in the starting rotation, competing with Kyle McPherson and Jonathan Sanchez. That group could also start seeing some competition from Phil Irwin.
“He’s in contention,” Hurdle said on Locke’s chances. “We’d like to see better command. The changeup is his necessary pitch for him. The changeup sets up his fastball. He has a good breaking ball, we saw that at times today. We actually saw some swings and misses with the changeup. As we talked to him after the game I thought that could have been a pitch he might have been able to go to in some different sequences. [He] got a little fastball heavy for me. But it’s all about command. He’s more elevated today as well. The last time he was more down. It’s packaging the pitches, finishing the pitches and the execution.”
If Locke doesn’t make the rotation, he will most likely go to Indianapolis to start. The Pirates have been looking for a second lefty option out of the bullpen, but Hurdle said that Locke is viewed more as a starter.
“Our thoughts have always been that he needs to start,” Hurdle said. “He has pitched out of our bullpen, so I wouldn’t shut the door on that. That’s what he did last year a couple of specific times before we gave him the ball in the month of September.”
Phil Irwin Opening Some Eyes
Phil Irwin entered today’s game with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth inning. It was the second time in a week that Irwin has entered with inherited runners in a tough situation. Last Tuesday he entered the game against Boston in the sixth inning with two outs and the bases loaded, getting a fly out to end the inning. Today Irwin flashed his curveball to get two strikeouts and get out of the jam.
“He came in with an inherited runner situation and he had good stuff throughout his outing, but that stuff there was what we needed at the time,” Hurdle said of Irwin’s outing. “The fastball had downhill plane, it was sharp. The breaking ball had great bite, good depth. And then we were able to stretch him out over 50 pitches. Great ratio of first pitch strikes, ahead in the count, working down in the zone. It was another good outing for Phil.”
So far this Spring, the right-hander has a 2.25 ERA in eight innings, with a 9:2 K/BB ratio. That impressive strikeout ratio follows his brief time in Triple-A where he struck out 28 batters in 21 innings. Throughout his minor league career, Irwin has an 8.0 K/9 ratio, and impressive command, with a 1.6 BB/9 ratio. He has great command of his four-seam fastball and sinker, and finishes batters off with his curveball, which could be considered a plus offering with a lot of movement. After 3.2 innings and seven strikeouts today, combined with a somewhat rough outing for Jeff Locke, Irwin could start getting some consideration for the rotation. His effectiveness in two inherited runner situations could also give him a shot at the major league bullpen.
“You can only start so many guys,” Hurdle said on keeping Irwin as a starter. “What we’ve tried to do with a number of guys is keep them involved as far as pitches they were throwing. He was stretched out almost to a starting opportunity with 50-plus pitches. He’s in the mix in a couple of different situations we’re looking at. He’s pitched well this Spring.”
Irwin has always been a starter, so making the switch to the bullpen would be an adjustment. I talked with him last week about that switch, and the difference between starting and relieving. He’s got four good pitches, with a strikeout pitch, so theoretically he could pitch in either role. He could also fill that swing man role, serving as a long man out of the bullpen, and an occasional spot starter.
“He’s one of the guys that we’ve talked about, that could get a look there as well,” Hurdle said on Irwin as a swing man guy. “He’s a versatile guy. We’ve liked what we’ve seen, and we’re going to continue getting him the ball and giving him different opportunities, and see where it takes us and takes him.”
Clint Hurdle Reacts to Gerrit Cole and Jonathan Sanchez
The Pirates played two games yesterday, using a split-squad. Gerrit Cole started the game in Sarasota against the Orioles, while Jonathan Sanchez made the start in Fort Myers against the Twins.
Cole went four innings, giving up two runs on two hits, with a walk and two strikeouts. Clint Hurdle wasn’t at the game, but reviewed the footage later.
“I thought he used his fastball very well yesterday,” Hurdle said. “I thought he used both sides of the plate very well. It was a good mix of pitches, good sequences. I thought he was aggressive. He pitched with intent, with conviction, and he executed well. So it was another good start for him.”
Hurdle was in Fort Myers to watch Sanchez pitch, and to watch a lot of the guys who are on the fringe for the final roster spots. Sanchez threw two innings, giving up two runs on two hits. The big news was that he only walked one batter, after entering the game with six walks in 3.1 innings this Spring.
“It was a very good day for Jonathan,” Hurdle said. “Pace, rhythm was good. First pitch strikes were good. He threw strikes. And a couple times with a runner on base, he actually picked on his own, which means he was out pitching. The first few times out it’s been cerebral, a little mechanical, trying to repeat his delivery. On the things he worked on he might have held on to them a little bit too long in the game. There was an inning or two that he wasn’t able to finish. So it was a much better rhythm, opportunity, pace, execution yesterday for him. So I believe that was a step forward.”