PITTSBURGH — With several off days in the early part of the second half and several young pitchers with options performing well, the Pirates have plenty of alternatives when it comes to fielding a rotation.
It’s going to be a tough sell for Jeff Locke to remain in that group.
Locke lasted just three innings in the Pirates 9-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday night, allowing five runs on seven hits. It’s been a rough stretch for Locke, whose ERA has now climbed to 5.54 on the season.
Wednesday’s start was the third straight in which he failed to get out of the fifth inning. In that period, his ERA is 9.75. It’s been a frustratingly inconsistent season for Locke, who has had some of his best career performances this year, including a complete-game shutout in Miami.
The common thread in Locke’s good starts is that he hasn’t walked many batters. Things got off to an ominous start on that front Wednesday, as he walked the first batter of the game. He handed out five free passes in his three innings.
“I just had a really hard time getting ahead of people and then putting somebody away,” Locke said. “It seemed everybody we started with a strike to, we followed up with a ball or two balls or three balls.”
Locke was particularly frustrated by his inability to take advantage of several opportunities to right the ship. Jung Ho Kang bailed him out in the first inning with a diving stop to start a double play and then the Pirates scored three runs to take the lead in the bottom of the second after Locke had conceded a pair in the top half.
“Jung Ho Kang’s play in the first inning, I know we got out of that inning unscathed, but sometimes those need to be your mulligans — getting away with stuff like that and making sure it doesn’t happen again,” Locke lamented.
Manager Clint Hurdle had a better-than-usual view for Locke’s start, and he said that the inability to throw strikes and located pitches was the biggest issue. Hurdle was ejected from the game in the first inning and watched the rest from the clubhouse.
“It played out in different sequences the rest of the night,” Hurdle said. “Deep counts. You follow the glove … I had an excellent opportunity tonight to watch where our targets were setting and were the pitchers were going. It wasn’t anywhere near where we need to be.”
Hurdle didn’t discuss Locke’s next potential turn in the rotation, but was obviously not pleased with the results and even mentioned Jon Niese’s demotion to the bullpen while discussing Locke’s inconsistency and his future.
“We’re continuing to try and work with it and help him. I know he’s trying to solve it, trying to answer the challenges that come with it as well. … I’m sure it’s frustrating to him. The last thing he wants to do is get a lead and then give it back up. However, we’ve gone through these sequences from time to time. There’s reasons for everything. There’s reasons why you get to pitch more. There’s reasons you get the slot at the bottom of the rotation or you get moved to the bullpen in the case of Jon [Niese]. Whatever have you, you need to pitch. Obviously, when you can do it with consistency, it’s going to help you out and it’s going to help your team out more.”
Bouncing back from tough starts is nothing new for Locke, who has been plagued by inconsistency for much of his six-year MLB career. But even he acknowledged that the upcoming schedule and the performance of the team’s young pitchers had put future plans in question.
“We’ll rise it off tonight and get back to work tomorrow and find out what the next step is going to be,” he said. “We have some off days coming up, so we don’t know what the plan is going to be. You try to get back out there again as soon as you can and try to make things right. Every outing is not going to be the same. When things are good, you just want to keep them good. When things are bad, you want to turn that page as quickly as you can. That’s what we’ll do.”
The Pirates will need a starter for Saturday to take Chad Kuhl’s spot, but will not need a fifth starter again until August 6th.
Hurdle was ejected for arguing a fair/foul play in front of home plate just three batters into the game. Ryan Braun hit the ball right in front of home plate, and then came in contact with the ball as he was leaving the batter’s box.
Home plate umpire Sam Holbrook immediately called a foul ball, much to the protestation of catcher Francisco Cervelli. Just after Holbrook and Cervelli’s conversation ended, Holbrook pointed to the Pirates’ dugout and ejected Hurdle.
“I was told ‘that’s enough,’” Hurdle said. “It was the third hitter of the game. Obviously, I need to find a way to communicate better to be told that’s enough that early in the game. … I just shared my view that I thought it hit him in fair play. He said ‘that’s enough.’ I thought it was a little early to say ‘that’s enough.’ Obviously, that was enough. I exited at that point. Time out.”
It was Hurdle’s 50th career ejection, and his earliest ejection in a game.
POLANCO ‘FEELS PRETTY GOOD’
Gregory Polanco didn’t get much of a workout in left field in his return from his left hamstring injury Tuesday night, but he got to run down a pair of extra-base hits off Brewers bats Wednesday, and he felt that his hamstring responded well.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “The times where I cut to the ball in the outfield, it felt pretty good. It’s getting better.”
He said that the only limitation was some tightness that prevented him from fully stretching out the muscle, and that he isn’t experiencing any pain.
Jordy Mercer went 2 for 4 with a double and two RBIs. … Starling Marte was 2 for 4 with a double, a walk and a stolen base. … Andrew McCutchen was 0 for 5 with two strikeouts. … A.J. Schugel gave up three runs in one-plus inning of relief.