Jeff Locke barely made the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation out of spring training, winning a battle with Kyle McPherson almost by default after McPherson struggled and a better option never materialized.
“You know when you break camp as the No. 5 guy, if something happens or if someone starts off hot down below you might be the guy that gets moved,” Locke said. “It’s kind of pitching to survive.”
Something that’s no longer an issue for him as the de facto ace for the injury ravaged Pirates.
The 25-year-old, who looks a couple days removed from high school, allowed two hits over seven innings as the Pirates silenced the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-0 on Friday night. Locke struck out five and walked one while needing just 75 pitches to get 21 outs.
Locke (6-1) barely resembled the guy who walked seven Chicago Cubs in his previous start, keeping the Dodgers off balance by working both sides of the plate and not being afraid of letting his defense do the rest as his ERA dropped to 2.19.
“He came to pitch,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “Just very, very efficient. He made pitches the entire seven innings.”
Jason Grilli worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in the ninth for his National League-leading 24th save.
Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run double in the third inning off Stephen Fife (1-2) and gave the Pirates some insurance when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Neil Walker in the ninth.
The story, however, remains the soft-spoken left-hander from New Hampshire. Locke lost his first game of the year, a 6-2 defeat in Los Angeles on April 10. He hasn’t been beaten since and appears to be growing stronger each time he takes the hill, a welcome development for a starting rotation in tatters.
A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jeanmar Gomez all are on the disabled list, leaving Locke and veteran Francisco Liriano as the top-end starters for one of baseball’s biggest first-half surprises.
If the spotlight is getting to Locke, it doesn’t show.
“I wouldn’t say [my] comfort level has changed at all,” Locke said. “It’s still uncomfortable. The confidence is definitely there. That’s something I’ve gained into spring training and I’ve been able to carry it through the first half of the season so far.”
Los Angeles didn’t get a runner to second base while Locke was in the game, but had chances late to tie the game.
Pittsburgh reliever Mark Melancon struck out pinch-hitter Juan Uribe with runners in scoring position in the eighth. Yaisel Puig and Nick Punto hit consecutive singles off Grilli to start the ninth.
Grilli then retired Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Mark Ellis to remain a perfect 24 for 24 in save opportunities.
“He threw eight pitches in that at-bat,” Gonzalez said. “When I see eight pitches, I shouldn’t strike out.”