Having secured its prey, the black snake squeezes it to death before eating it. The body is coiled around the prey, tightening until respiration stops and suffocation occurs. — Encyclopedia Britannica
Jeff Locke is a black snake. You watched him on the mound Wednesday night in the Pirates’ 2-1 loss at Cincinnati. He pitched seven scoreless innings despite allowing runners into scoring position in three of the first four frames. He also retired 10 of his last 11 hitters to finish strongly and hand off the Pirates’ one-run lead to the bullpen.
Perhaps most impressively, Locke held the destructive 2-through-5 hitters of the Reds’ lineup 1-for-12 on the evening. All four batters have posted above-league-average numbers this season, but the Pirates’ young lefty kept them all but silent.
The Bucs could not close the deal for him, though, and a diamond-cutter up the middle by Brandon Phillips off Vin Mazzaro gave Cincinnati an important walkoff win in the 13th.
Locke did not receive any help from his offense. The Pirates’ lineup went 0-for-8 with men in scoring position, stranding 14 baserunners while scoring only one. That one only arrived because Starling Marte was able to speed to third base for his 5th triple and Russell Martin ricocheted a comebacker off pitcher Bronson Arroyo to score him. That was all, and Pittsburgh’s league-worst average with runners in scoring position falls to .222 on the season. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker combined to go 0-for-10, and the Bucs hit .196 Wednesday night.
But it takes two, and the Reds’ bullpen pitched seven shutout innings with just three hits allowed. Cincinnati tied the game when Jay Bruce homered to right field off Jason Grilli, the first homer the Pirates’ closer allowed all season.
Grilli: "I can sit here and crucify myself but everything’s been working pretty good for me so I’m not going to sulk tonight.”
— Travis Sawchik (@Sawchik_Trib) June 20, 2013
But let’s get back to my bad Locke/Snake analogy. Locke stranded five baserunners, picked caught one stealing in the 3rd inning and drew a 1st-inning-ending double play. Once again, Locke was not overpowering as he struck out just three Reds hitters and walked three, but he buckled down to get 11 groundouts and 1 flyout and keep Cincinnati off the scoreboard for seven innings. This year, he has held hitters to a .105 average with runners in scoring position.
Locke on becoming one of best starters in NL: "Some stuff gets brought to your attention, inevitably. It doesn't really do much for me."
— Bill Brink (@BrinkPG) June 20, 2013
Locke’s ERA is down to 2.01 on the season, third-best in baseball. Normally, I would maintain that his run-prevention is due to regress in his first full MLB season. Normally, I would say his .231 BABIP and 86% strand rate cannot be maintained over the whole year. Normally, I would point out his ERA the rest of the way will run closer to his current FIP of 3.78 than to 2.01. But I am on Team Locke now and will do no such thing. He is a snake who suffocates his prey.
Okay, time to talk about Clint Hurdle. The Pirates’ manager had a difficult decision to make in the Top 6th with his team leading 1-0. With one out, Arroyo gave up a single and a double, then intentionally walked Jordy Mercer to draw Locke. The option was there to have Alex Presley pinch-hit and pat Locke on the shoulder for a five innings well done. Instead, the pitcher stayed in and grounded into a forceout to shortstop, as did Starling Marte.
The Pirates did not score the rest of the way and only got one baserunner into scoring position. On one hand, you can look back and say Hurdle missed his opportunity to possibly generate multiple runs that have been so hard to come by. On another hand, Locke defended Hurdle by tossing two more shutout innings and aided an overworked bullpen that ended up having to work deep into extra innings. On the third hand, the bullpen is overworked partly because Hurdle removed Charlie Morton with a three-run lead Tuesday night, even though the starter had only thrown 61 pitches. He then used Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon to finish off the game even though the Pirates were up four runs.
On the fourth hand, I never have to write that paragraph if the Bucs could have come through with a base hit just one of the eight times a batter stepped up with a runner on second base or third base. On the fifth hand, a manager’s job is to make optimal decisions that can swing a close game (no pun intended), and Hurdle’s decision may not have been optimal.
My Hindu deity is out of hands. Brandon Cumpton goes tomorrow to try to split this pivotal series.