If Jeff Locke was pitching to save his spot in the rotation… he is well on his way.
Locke put together the best start of his brief Major League career Tuesday night to tack on another outing to a strong run of Pirates’ pitching. After some early hiccups, Locke recorded outs on the last eight hitters he faced, then turned it over to the consistently stellar bullpen for the three final innings to close out a 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
The young lefty normally works as a groundball pitcher painting the corners, but not against the Phillies. Locke generated a career-high 13 swings-and-misses over six innings. He gave up only two hits, walked two and hit one batter.
Such a terrific outing did not start out so well. Locke gave up walks in each of the first two innings and allowed runners on second and third in both frames. He escaped from both innings unscathed. In the 4th, he gave up a leadoff triple to John Mayberry and hit next batter Domonic Brown. Two ground balls cleaned it up though, as new third baseman Brandon Inge threw out Mayberry at home and former Pirate Erik Kratz grounded into an inning-ending double play. Locke finished off his outing with 1-2-3 innings in the 5th and 6th.
Locke got his whiffs with nine fastballs, two curveballs and two changeups. His four-seam fastball had great speed (sitting 90 mph early on and going as high as 92) and showed good life, even getting Ryan Howard to swing and miss three straight times.
The performance dropped his season ERA to 3.74 and provided an all-too-rare six innings of work from the starting rotation. Locke certainly looks to be in a better place in limiting hard-hit balls, allowing just five line drives in his last two starts after giving up eight in his 2013 debut in Los Angeles. With Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano getting closer to a Big League return, every start counts. Locke just had a very good one.
Brandon Inge Makes an Impact in Debut
To be frank, there are problems with a Major League roster that contains three demonstrably weak hitters in Clint Barmes, John McDonald and Brandon Inge. Perhaps their fielding skills can overcome lack of hitting when, say, a groundball pitcher like Morton makes a start. But it is worrisome to have 40 percent of the Pirates’ bench occupied by guys who have not posted a .300 on-base percentage since 2010.
All that said, run production has come from stranger sources than Inge, and he made his contribution Tuesday night. After Neil Walker led off the 4th with a single off starter Cole Hamels, Inge stepped up and smacked an RBI double to right-center to put the Pirates ahead 1-0. Gaby Sanchez homered to right off Hamels to give the Bucs all the offense they would need.
There’s not much there with Inge as a hitter. He will homer a few times if you give him enough at-bats, but he will make way too many outs in the meantime. He has some use to the Pirates to give Pedro Alvarez nights off against pitchers like Cole Hamels, because he can still play third and hit lefties moderately well. Plus Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy thinks he can loosen up the clubhouse to a positive effect, and McCarthy has a smart enough analytical mind to make such claims without it being brushed off as old-guard baseball BS.
If the Pirates want to compete, they can’t do it with Inge and McDonald occupying the similar roles without much of a bat. Pick one. I would probably pick Inge.
Relievers Keep it Going
Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli (for his 8th save) wrapped up the victory with a neat little bow, with Melancon the only one getting into any danger with two baserunners. The bullpen’s season ERA is down to 1.98 (2nd in the NL), WHIP is down to 1.07 (3rd in the NL) and they have held hitters to an MLB-best .182 batting average. Put it all together, and it was the third shutout from the Pirates’ pitching staff this week after getting only two shutouts in the previous 45 games.
Some credit for the success must be given to the fielders, as Bucs Dugout’s David Manel pointed out the Pirates lead all of baseball at turning balls in play into outs. The specter of fatigue still remains, as Pirates’ relievers have thrown the most innings of any NL bullpens, and will remain until the Bucs can get more innings out of their starters. Still, Melancon (1 run, 6 hits, 11 strikeouts in 12 innings) and Grilli (0 runs, 3 hits, 15 strikeouts in 9 innings) continue to nail down the 8th and 9th innings, and only Melancon’s pitch counts have been worrisome so far.