Let’s start by looking at Jeff Locke’s results after his disastrous Saturday outing of 10 hits and eight runs allowed over 2.2 innings:
- 1st Half of 2013 – 2.06 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
- 2nd Half of 2013 – 4.78 ERA, 2.02 WHIP
Again, those are the results via FanGraphs. Locke had good results before the All-Star break and has bad results since. Now let’s look at the process after the Pirates’ 15-5 home loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks:
- 1st Half – 16.7% strikeouts, 10.8% walks, 1.6 K/BB, 52.3% ground balls
- 2nd Half – 19.7% strikeouts, 13.8% walks, 1.4 K/BB, 57.3% ground balls
Locke has not been a demonstrably worse pitcher over the last month and a half, he has simply had worse results. And why is that, Jeff?
“They hit the ball where we weren’t,” Locke said.
- 1st Half – 77.2% balls in play turned into outs, 83% strand rate
- 2nd Half – 64.0% balls in play turned into outs, 71% strand rate
“[Hitters] have been putting the ball in play all season,” the left-hander added. “I’m not saying that in the first half I had behind-the-back, diving plays or anything like that. But where they hit the ball was at people, as opposed to now they’re finding some holes a little bit. That’s just the game evening out.”
That’s not to forgive Locke for his awful start Saturday. Locke walked two of his first four batters, which fired back at him when Wil Nieves poked an RBI double down the right-field line to put Arizona up 2-0 right away.
Then after Locke stranded two runners to tap-dance through the 2nd and got two quick groundouts to start the 3rd, “everything just kind of hit the fan,” as he put it.
Line-drive single. Line-drive single. RBI line-drive single. Two-RBI ground-ball single. Line-drive single. Three-run Martin Prado home run. Ground-ball single.
Look up at the scoreboard and the Pirates trailed 8-0 after Locke allowed seven straight hits despite being close multiple times to getting out unscathed. If even one pitch goes differently, Locke gets through the third inning with 60-something pitches and only two runs charged to him.
It reminded him of teammate Francisco Liriano giving up 12 hits and 10 runs earlier this month in Denver, when the fellow lefty also did not get out of the third inning.
“My eyes were opened up the other day in Colorado when Liriano didn’t throw the way he expected to throw,” Locke said. “The game sped up a little bit. I was all over the zone, then you throw a pitch over the plate, it’s a hit. Another hit.”
So why didn’t manager Clint Hurdle replace his starter after the fourth-straight hit? The fifth? The sixth?
“These starters take pride in carrying their lunch pails out there and getting us to a part of the game in which they can compete,” Hurdle said. “Any time they come out at this particular point in time, they’re disappointed. They carry that angst. You end up using guys that you really didn’t want to use.”
Still a Chance
The Pirates rocketed back right away in the Bottom 3rd. Just like in the top, Arizona starter Trevor Cahill retired the first two batters. But Starling Marte kickstarted the offense by hammering a 401-foot solo home run into the left-field bleachers. Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen (team-high three hits) followed with back-to-back singles, then Pedro Alvarez destroyed a Cahill pitch 432 feet over the right-field wall for his 30th home run.
The 37,982 fans who had just finished booing Jeff Locke off the PNC Park mound were united in excitement. The Pirates were now only down by four.
“There’s that piece of you that says we’re gonna win this game still, because that’s what we’ve done all this season,” Locke said.
Pittsburgh relievers Jared Hughes and Vin Mazzaro kept the deficit at four runs into the 6th. Russell Martin led off the inning by smacking a book-rule double and scoring on Jose Tabata’s RBI single. After Arizona’s Will Harris hit back-to-back batters, he was removed for left-handed Joe Thatcher to turn around potential go-ahead run Walker. Instead of hitting lefty, Walker went to the right-side and struck out to leave the bases loaded.
Walker slammed his helmet to the grass, and the Bucs never got any closer to victory. Jeanmar Gomez served up hits to four of his five batters as he pitched back-to-back days for the first time in his Major League career. Bryan Morris could not strand Gomez’s runners and gave up three runs of his own.
The Diamondbacks out-hit the Pirates 20-11, including four hits from Prado and three hits from Paul Goldschmidt (who tied Alvarez for the NL lead with 30 homers), each of whom drove in three runs.
Hurdle identified many problems in Locke’s start aside from the dreadful results:
- Inconsistent fastball command
- Less movement on pitches
- “Curveball kind of came and went”
- “Changeup wasn’t carrying deep enough” to get batters to whiff
“Short on stuff today and short on command,” Hurdle concluded. “That’s a rough combination.”
The manager said he will talk with Locke and general manager Neal Huntington to decide if they will skip one of Locke’s starts or give him more days between starts. Does the pitcher want to get extra rest?
“Absolutely not. If that’s the route that they take, then that’s their decision to make,” Locke said. “But that’s nothing that I’m looking for or want. I want to keep everything as normal as possible, keep throwing on the same amount of rest, keep doing the same thing I do every week.
“My arm’s really been the least of my worries.”
When Locke gets the ball again, he will have to rely on the idea that not as many of his pitches will find grass or gaps in the infield to make his declining stat line even worse.