MIAMI — You can’t predict baseball.
That saying is the best way to describe the events of the last two nights in Miami for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Last night the Pirates went up against a left-hander who didn’t have the best numbers, and prepared for that by throwing out their best left-handed mashing lineup. Brad Hand responded with eight strong innings to shut the Pirates offense down.
Tonight the Pirates had a similar situation, going up against a left-hander that they should easily beat with a lineup geared towards hitting left-handers. And tonight, it paid off as the Pirates were able to score seven runs, including six in the second inning, fueled by a three run homer from Andrew McCutchen.
“It was good that we were able to get out and get on the board early,” McCutchen said about the big inning. “We’ve been looking for something like that. We know we’re capable of doing that on a regular basis. It’s good that we’re able to go out and get those runs on the board.”
Last night the Pirates sent Charlie Morton to the mound. Morton came into the start as the best pitcher for the Pirates during the month of August. He ended up having a bad start, which combined with the poor offense led to the Pirates going down 5-1 by the sixth inning.
Tonight the Pirates sent Jeff Locke to the mound. Locke has put up the worst numbers out of any Pirates starting pitcher recently. Even with the 7-1 score after the top of the second, there was reason to think the Pirates might not have enough. Instead, he responded by going seven innings, giving up two runs on a walk and five hits, leading to a 7-2 victory.
On paper, the offense should have been this good both nights. And on paper, Morton should have been the guy with the good outing, and Locke should have struggled. Granted, getting a six run lead definitely makes it easy for any pitcher. But that wasn’t the only thing that led to Locke’s success tonight.
“It gives you a little bit more room for error,” Locke said. “At the same time, I don’t need to be pitching like I have room for error.”
Locke was fantastic, throwing 20 of 26 first pitch strikes and getting 13 batters out in three pitches or less, which are two metrics the Pirates stress in a big way with their pitchers. Clint Hurdle noted that Locke got better throughout the game.
“He made them swing the bat. One walk and three punchouts,” Hurdle said. “And I thought he got sharper as the game went on. His fastball had very good finish and angle tonight. I thought the angle of his fastball was better. And he was able to use some changeups in really good situations. He elevated a couple that got hit. But overall, I thought he held serve there early, and then got better the last three frames. The length was good to see.”
The start came at a good time for Locke. This will be his last outing before rosters expand on September 1st. He’s been struggling this month. His friend, A.J. Burnett, hopes to return next month. Burnett’s replacement, J.A. Happ, has pitched well enough to keep a rotation spot when Burnett returns. And the Pirates have Vance Worley pitching on the same day as Locke in Triple-A, with Worley ready to come up next week.
In so many ways, Locke needed this start to at least buy another outing.
“It’s nothing that I haven’t been through at this level. Frustrating at times, of course,” Locke said. “We have such a good ball club. You don’t really want to have any question marks in your rotation, especially at this point in the season. I feel like the way I’ve pitched, I’ve kind of done that for a little while. To put a good, solid outing under your belt, moving forward I think it just builds some more confidence.”
Prior to the game, Hurdle was asked why Locke might have been struggling in the second half every year. Hurdle said that one reason might have been due to a lack of endurance in previous years, but noted that Locke has put on weight this year. The big thing for Locke is the lack of consistency.
“I think it’s the consistency of the overall game,” Hurdle said. “There’s games where he’s able to do things consistently. All those games look the same. And the games that he doesn’t, the ball/strike ratio is off. First pitch strikes are off. It’s almost like he’s trying to be too fine.”
This wasn’t the case tonight for Locke, and he’s going to need more starts like this to hold his spot in the rotation, at least for the rest of the 2015 season.
**Locke gave credit to Chris Stewart tonight, who catches all of his bullpen sessions.
“Stewart and I were just on the same page,” Locke said. “I know it’s cliché, you hear it all the time. It’s a really thankless position out there. They do a really good job with all of us. Right from pitch one, Stew and I knew what we wanted to do pre-game, and really it was about execution after that.”
**Andrew McCutchen had an RBI double in the first inning to put the Pirates on the board, then broke the game open with his three-run homer in the second. McCutchen said that he feels like he’s getting better pitches to hit this year with more protection in the lineup.
“You can’t pitch around me,” McCutchen said. “If you do, I’ve got Aramis behind me. Sometimes Kang behind me. Those guys are getting the job done. With that protection, it’s making it easier for me to get more pitches to see.”
**Joe Blanton shut down Miami in the final two innings after a four-day break from pitching. Hurdle said that they wanted to see how long they could keep him down before bringing him back in where he could be sharp. He did say that this type of layoff might be the maximum, and they might not go as long in the future.
“He showed his resiliency again, his ability to make pitches, and again give us those two innings and keep everybody else down,” Hurdle said.
**On whether Hurdle made the right calls with tonight’s lineup:
“I never go there. Everybody else will tell me if I did or didn’t,” Hurdle said while laughing. “We put a lineup out there that obviously did a nice job in the second. And then defensively we put away outs. It was a good win for us.”