PITTSBURGH — The Major League Baseball season is long. Very long. 162 games over seven months is a physical grind, but it’s also a mental one. Almost every day brings team meetings, video sessions, batting practice, hitting sessions, workouts and any other number of activities that help professionals prepare to play the game at a high level.

Sometimes, it can get a bit monotonous. Sometimes, a change — any change — can shake a player up enough mentally to make a difference.

Having said that, there are probably a host of reasons’ for Andrew McCutchen’s breakout two-home run performance that powered the Pirates to a 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday night. But the first one he mentioned was his new walk-up music. Seriously.

“For starters, the Adele walk-up song felt real good,” he said. “It had me feeling good, vibing, going up to bat.”

Of course, the first time he was up there “vibing,” Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda struck him out on an almost-silly looking offering at an 0-2 slider. McCutchen went to school, but it wasn’t necessarily on any of the five-pitch mix that Maeda was offering. Instead, it was about the circumstance.

“I learned a good lesson: the strike zone is still the same,” he said. “I learned that pretty quick. I had to make an adjustment, and that was to get a pitch to hit and hit it, don’t fall into that two strike hole again. I didn’t and was able to put the barrel on the ball.”

He turned on a hanging breaking ball for a solo shot in the fourth inning and then sent a Maeda fastball into the left field bleachers for a game-breaking three-run blast in the sixth. It was his best offensive performance since April and raised his season slugging average 23 points — a difficult feat at the end of June.

It’s been a trying month for McCutchen, who had a .192/.259/.256 triple-slash line in June coming into Saturday’s game. He’s been putting in extra work to try to straighten things out.

“That’s what we do,” he said. “We work every day. We just hope that the results will get there. It’s not like I’m sitting around just hoping things change. I’m going out there trying to get things done and get things turned over. Tonight was a good night and I’ll be able to go from here.”

In going from there, McCutchen said he felt that his big night could be a way forward to more success.

“Of course it’s helpful,” he said. “Oh-for-100, that ain’t helping. It’s good to put some hits on the board and not only get some hits but some big hits. It felt good to be able to get a pitch to hit and square it up. That’s what it’s been about: get a pitch to hit and hit it. I was able to do that a couple times tonight.”

While McCutchen was lighting up the North Shore skyline with fireworks, starting pitcher Jeff Locke had the crowd buzzing with a perfect game through five innings. He gave up a lead-off double to Scott Van Slyke in the sixth, but it was nonetheless another outstanding start for Locke. He finished seven innings with one run on five hits and no walks.

It was the second consecutive solid start for Locke, who went 6.2 scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants on Monday. There were a couple of constant themes. Locke didn’t walk a single batter in either of the starts and he got solid defense in both, as well, allowing him to pitch to contact.

“”It was a good game,” Locke said. “[Catcher Erik] Kratz and I were on the same page. I made some good pitches. Defense played unbelievable again behind me, like they always do. They’re an aggressive lineup, so it’s either a lot of hits or a lot of outs when teams are aggressive. Today, we got a lot of outs, so it was a good team effort.”

I asked Locke how much he is involved with the defensive positioning and how it affects what he does on the mound. Instead, he said it’s more like the opposite.

“In years past, when we would shift on [hitters], a lot of it was tailored to what they do — if they hit the ball to the left side or if they hit the ball to the right side,” Locke said. “Now, it’s a little bit more tailored to the pitcher on the mound. Not just what that guy does at the plate but if I do this, then we’re doing that. They kind of tailored the defense to my style of pitching. There’s a lot of outs out there that hitters don’t like to have. I guess that comes down to executing the pitch, too. I’m only half of it. He’s gotta put the bat on it weakly, or in some cases tonight, they hit the ball really hard and we were standing right there.”

Hurdle credited the team’s analytics department for coming up with the defensive solutions that have allowed Locke to pitch to contact, and as a result, become a more efficient pitcher.

“We give our guys credit because we’ve had a handful of games this year where all the balls hit on the ground are outs,” Hurdle said. “We were in really good spots. … Our analytics guys [Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald] on top setting the defense have been very, very strong.”

The other common thread has been the command, and according to Hurdle, it’s not just about the lack of walks, either.

“It’s first-pitch strikes, it’s getting ahead in counts, working quick and pitch efficiency,” Hurdle said. “That’s been the recipe for games that we’ve seen him do this.”

NOTES

• Jordy Mercer also had a home run, a two-run shot in the sixth.

• Gregory Polanco did not play for the second consecutive day. The team still hasn’t given an update on his condition.

• The Pirates had a streak of 105 innings without an error snapped when Sean Rodriguez overthrew A.J. Schugel when the latter was covering first base in the ninth inning. Rodriguez had entered the game as a defensive replacement for John Jaso.

• Chad Kuhl is the expected to make his Major League debut on the mound Sunday. He has not officially been added to the roster yet and the Pirates will have to clear a spot on the 40-man to select his contract. He will face Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw at 8:08 p.m.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. Locke has pitched two great starts in a row and it is too bad that he cannot be more consistent, because we’ve seen this from him now for 2-3 years. He will pitch extremely well in short stretches, and then mixes in a couple of just terrible performances. Overall, despite his last two starts, his ERA is still north of 5.00. That is unacceptable. He needs to pitch well for a couple of months, for me to be convinced he’s a different pitcher….
    The good news, McCutchen is getting hot – and he usually does about this time of year.

    • Take out the two starts before these last two (3 and 4 starts ago) and his season ERA is 3.66 if I calculated right. 18 ER in 8.2 IP is enough to balloon anyone’s ERA. That said, if we need one game I don’t really think I want him on the mound.

  2. Man, I hope Cutch can get a streak going. We were all saying he broke out back when he had that 3 homer game against Colorado and that didn’t happen. I hope El Coffee is back tonight. He hit a bomb off Kershaw last year.

  3. If Cutch could go back to being Cutch and Locke could become this years J Happ this could get interesting. I have more optimism with Cutch than Locke but hope springs eternal.

    • A very good review by John Smoltz talking about the Pirates experiment to move ‘Cutch out of his No. 3 spot and how important it was to get him back to that spot in the order where he had tremendous success and confidence.

  4. What Adele song?

    I could see “Set fire to the rain” or “Rolling in the deep” getting me in the zone, but “Hello” or “Someone like you” I’d probably have to stop halfway to the plate for a good cry. I love that woman.

    Uh, back to baseball…

    • Excellent observation. Neftali Feliz (better than Bastardo), Watson, and Melancon seem to be solid but I have lost any confidence I had in Hughes, Luebke and/or Lobstein. CH seems to be trying not to use Caminero in pressure situations, and we will see how Nicasio works.

    • He seem pretty competent, his change up get a good number of whiffs. He should probably stay in the MLB pen.

  5. Jeff Locke is a really good MLB starter three-quarters of the time this year. Take away his four blow-up starts in which he surrendered 33 earned runs across just 17 innings and the guy has a sparkling 2.35 ERA. I can see why the Pirates management and other teams see value in him.

    • He has value. At just 28 and a lefty who could still mature…even trade value. i watched Drew Pomeranz against the Reds today. Locke throws harder.

    • If you look at those 4 really bad starts, he hung in and stayed on the mound, absorbing the punishment. He’s an excellent No. 5 guy in the Rotation who has averaged almost 6 IP/G in his 15 starts in 2016. From 2013 thru 2015 he was 25-24 in 81 starts and his combined WAR Value was $24.6 mil while his combined salary was $1.6 mil. With two more years of team control remaining, he is a valuable asset for the Pirates.

      • His last two stinkers, the bullpen was ravaged, and he had to keep trotting out there despite clearly not fooling the hitters. Most of the time when a guy is off, he’ll get the hook. That hasn’t been an option for Locke, and he just has to take it.

  6. Dumb question, but with the emphasis being placed on defense last offseason (Harrison replacing Walker, Jaso replacing Pedro) why wasn’t the idea of shifting Cutch over to a corner spot ever even considered?

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