PITTSBURGH — The Pirates should be thanking Cincinnati tonight. With two losses by the Cardinals to the Reds today, coupled with a Pirates 10-2 win over the Brewers tonight, the Bucs have moved to only 2.5 games back in the NL Central.
As we all are constantly reminded by the Pirates television and radio broadcasts, “momentum is only as good as the next game’s starter.” The phrase is credited to the late manager Earl Weaver, and it was Jeff Locke’s turn to take prove it correct tonight for the Pirates.
Locke’s inconsistencies have been well documented, and you only have to look at his last few starts to notice it.
With all the discussion about the Pirates going to a five man rotation after the doubleheader next week, it is obvious that Locke has been pitching for his right to continue taking the mound every fifth game. He took full advantage of his opportunity tonight.
Locke only allowed three hits in the outing, and he retired eleven straight batters between the second and sixth innings. Typically, Locke has gone through stretches of a game where he pitches well. Only tonight, there wasn’t that one inning that kills him.
The goal for Locke was to get strike one before ball one, and he was able to accomplish that with 14 out of 16 first pitch strikes through five innings. He finished the game with 18 out of 24 first pitch strikes, a 75% rate that is much higher than the goal of 60% that Ray Searage likes to see from the pitchers.
“We were committing 100% to each pitch,” Locke said after the game. “These guys are going to be aggressive on the first pitch fastball inside, so we started them off away. We tried to change speeds early in the game and always keep them guessing.”
Locke utilized a strong mix of his two-seam and four-seam fastball combined with his changeup and curveball. He was able to stay out of the middle of the plate and change speeds. Locke attests that he and Francisco Cervelli decided before the game to “not be as predictable” and “pitch these guys a little bit backwards” to keep them off-balanced.
What may hurt Locke in the long run when it comes to deciding the rotation is his inability to go deep in a game – something he was trying to accomplish tonight before running into some trouble in the seventh. Locke has averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start before tonight, and being able to pitch into the seventh has to be a welcomed sight for Clint Hurdle.
Locke seems to be the odd man out once the Pirates move to a five-man rotation, but his last two starts may make the decision difficult for Hurdle. Locke says that he hasn’t thought a lot about the logjam of starting pitchers for the team right now.
“I know the way the season has gone as a whole for me. If Clint says ‘hey, you aren’t in here anymore’, then that is his decision to make and that’s what he feels is the best decision going ahead for this ballclub. Until that time happens, whether it be me or anybody, you just have to keep taking to ball and going out. I have to respect that.”
As of right now, Locke says that nothing has been said to any of the starters about what will happen to the rotation in the coming weeks. He says that he is simply focused on the task ahead and having his best outing every time he goes out. Locke, the so-called Robin to A.J. Burnett’s Batman, also takes to heart some advice from the veteran.
“A.J. has preached to us all the time – ‘don’t give anybody a reason to take you out’. I try to keep that mentality and do the best job I can any time I’m in there.”
Opposite of Locke tonight, the Brewers sent right-handed rookie Zach Davies to the mound for his third career start and second against the Pirates. In his first outing against the Bucs, he went 4.1 innings, allowing a 3-run home run to Aramis Ramirez. The Pirates were able to jump on him in the third tonight, and were able to knock him out once the fourth inning rolled around. Two doubles by Aramis Ramirez in the third and fourth innings may have written the script for Davies again tonight.
Ramirez came to the Pirates batting .247 for a struggling Brewers team, and he only has an average of .250 for the Pirates; however, his slugging percentage of .424 has been one of the best on the team in that span.
Ramirez may have had two big hits tonight, but the offensive spotlight of the night belonged to Josh Harrison, who was a late addition to the lineup after Starling Marte was scratched due to a stomach illness. Harrison went 4-4 with a walk, and he scored twice.
“That’s the reason I like to get him at-bats and get him in there,” Hurdle said. “He has the ability to get some things done. Sometimes you have to believe in things you’re not seeing, give players the opportunity, and try to have more patience than anyone else. Josh is going to work hard and prepare. Tonight was a very good night at the plate for him, and it’s fun to watch.”
The roster depth has played a key role for the Pirates lately, and players like Michael Morse have come in for pinch hit opportunities and succeeded. Tonight, Morse came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the seventh inning. He then drove the 89 MPH fastball from Brewers lefty Cesar Jimenez over the Clemente Wall, clearing the bases for his fifth career grand slam.
There is no place like home for these Pirates. With the win tonight, they are now 48-22 at home this season. Only the Dodgers have a better home record at 47-21. The Pirates will try to take the series tomorrow afternoon with Francisco Liriano taking the mound at 1:35 PM.