Published DateBy Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — Jeff Locke is on a roll. The talented left-handed pitcher from Redstone has won his last four decisions and is thoroughly enjoying being a part of the Pittsburgh Pirates' rotation. Locke started the season as the No. 5 pitcher in the rotation but has thrown the ball so well he's been elevated to No. 3 on the team's depth chart.
Monday was an off day for the Pirates before they hosted a three-game series with the Chicago Cubs Tuesday night and then heading off on a five-day road trip to Milwaukee for a three games and then two in Detroit. Locke, who is scheduled to make his next start Saturday against the Brewers, took time to chat by phone Monday afternoon with The Conway Daily Sun. During the 30-minute interview he talked about a wide range of topics about how the season is going; the difference between opening the season with the big league club opposed to being a September call-up in the two previous years; and why he's not being regarded as one of the top rookies through the first two months of the season although his stats would indicate otherwise.
Locke, a 2006 Kennett High graduate and the son of Pam and Alan Locke, of Redstone, is 4-1 on the season in nine starts and has an Earned Run Average of 2.73. This season, he has pitched 52 2/3 innings; allowed 39 hits; 16 earned runs; 5 home runs; walked 22; and struck out 32 while holding opponents to a .215 batting average.
Locke scattered three hits over seven scoreless innings while striking out four on Sunday in a 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros before 28,384 spectators at PNC Park.
''Their guy (Locke) did a good job,'' Houston manager Bo Porter said. ''He changed speeds, pitched to both sides of the plate and kept us away from the barrel. Sometimes you've got to tip your cap and give credit to the other guy.''
Locke won his fourth straight decision and gave up one run or fewer for the fifth time in his past eight outings.
"I think I'm starting to figure it out," Locke said. "I'm getting more and more comfortable with my teammates and being here. The last two times I was with the team were late in the season, there for the last month. I think it's much easier when you're with the guys from spring training right into the start of the season."
The Pirates own the third best record in the National League after winning eight of their last 10 games to improve to 26-18.
"It's exciting to see us playing this sort of ball," Locke said. "Everyone is contributing. It seems like every night it's a different guy. Our pitching has been so solid. We've had five or six shutouts already and every guy just wants to keep that momentum going. I try to take the torch and run with it when it's my turn."
Asked if he could has scripted this sort of success to open the season, Locke was quick with an answer.
"No," he said. "Plain and simple the big leagues have always been a challenge for me and I didn't know why. The previous two years I was up here I wondered why success was not coming my way, but I've gotten over that pretty fast this season. All I'm trying to do is be the best teammate I can be and do whatever I can to help the club.
"I'm having success right now, something a lot of other big league pitchers aren't having now," Locke continued. "The big thing for me is to stay consistent and keep learning my craft. It's been incredible to see the arms I've seen throw this season from (Clayton) Kershaw (Dodgers) and (Zack) Greinke (Dodgers), Cole Hamels (Phillies) to Matt Harvey (rookie with the Mets), it's been more than a pleasure. Every day is exciting."
Locke actually flirted with a no hitter on Sunday, that was broken up by a base hit in the fifth inning. He said he wasn't thinking about a no-hit bid, but had to laugh when it was one of the first questions posed to him after the game.
"A reporter asked when did I first know I had a no-hitter," he said, laughing. "I jokingly responded when the game first started and I was facing my first batter."
Locke has been able to work through the seventh inning twice this season, and, in front 1-0 on Sunday and having thrown 94 pitches, he thought he might head to uncharted territory — the eighth inning.
"I was thinking it myself, this might be the day," Locke said, laughing, but the game was turned over to the Bucs' bullpen which has been lights out. Mark Melancon (a .76 ERA in 23 games) worked a scoreless eighth inning before handing the ball over to closer Jason Grilli (.92 ERA with a league-leading 17 saves), who set the Astros down one, two, three.
"Melancon has nicknamed our bullpen the Shark Tank," Locke said and explained that while Melancon was diving with great white sharks in New Zealand, the dive party came across a younger shark and named it a "Melancon."
"When (the bullpen) get two strikes on a hitter you hear the music from Jaws," Locke said, laughing. "I think it's pretty neat. We're going to be getting an actual shark tank for the bullpen with two real sharks in it."
Locke takes great pride in learning his craft and has been taken under the wing of staff ace AJ Burnett. Locke sees Burnett and Grilli as two of his mentors.
"Grilli really took me in when I first came up and AJ is doing the same this year," he said. "It goes without saying that there's nothing AJ hasn't gone through since he's been in the big leagues. He knows all the different pressures of the game. He's nearing the end of his career and I'm at the start of mine. We have a very good relationship. He might come over to me once in awhile during a game and point something out, just being helpful. AJ handles the starters and Grilli handles the bullpen, they're both great leaders."
In his past six outings, Locke has allowed 21 hits and seven earned runs over 37 innings (1.70 ERA). With stats like those you'd think Locke would be in the conversation for rookie pitcher of the year to date.
"It turns out I'm not a rookie," Locke said. "I missed out on this being my rookie season by one-third of an inning."
If Locke had gotten one less out last year, he'd maintain his rookie status. Still, he's on the national radar with the media.
Jayson Stark, senior baseball writer for ESPN, tweeted the following about Locke on May 9: "How bout this: Jeff Locke has allowed three hits or fewer in four straight starts. How many other Pirates in live-ball era have done that? None!"
Baseball Hall of Fame journalist Peter Gammons on Monday tweeted: "Jeff Locke, from the shadow of The Snowmobile (may have meant the Cranmore Skimobile), five of last six quality starts, 4-1, 2.73, deal with Morton for McLouth looks awfully good now."
Also Monday, during a chat on the ESPN baseball website, Jerry Crasnick, a baseball writer, was asked about Pittsbugh's playoff chances this season.
He responded, "The consensus is that this Pittsburgh team is better than the recent versions that unraveled in the second half. Starling Marte looks like the real deal, and there's a better overall cast surrounding Andrew McCutchen. A lot is going to depend on Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano and the back end of the rotation. I think the Buccos get over the .500 hump this season. But it's going to be tough for them to contend all season in a division with the Cards and Reds."
"That's all nice to read about and see that sort of recognition," Locke said. "To see someone as well-respected as Peter Gammons, it means a lot. It's an exciting ride but one that I don't take for granted. For the Pirates to have the third most wins at this point and to know I'm a part of it is great. This week, this season and today is everything that I worked for."
Locke, 25, was drafted in the second round (51st pick — 20 picks ahead of Justin Masterson who the Red Sox drafted that year) by the Atlanta Braves in 2006. He's the lone member of that Atlanta draft class to make it to the Major Leagues. The Braves selected outfielder Cody Johnson with their first pick (No. 24 overall). He is currently playing for the New York Yankees Triple-A affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and hitting just .167 with one home run, four RBI and 32 strike-outs.
"I think not being a first rounder has just made me work that much harder," Locke said. "I wanted to prove I belonged, that I could make it. It's made me compete, compete for everything."
Locke's competitive nature came out in the seventh inning after Houston's Chris Carter led off with a single to open the inning. Catcher Carlos Corporan followed.
"I was 3-2 on the guy and my catcher (Michael McKenry) threw down the change-up sign," Locke said. "That gave me all of the extra confidence I needed, that he believed enough in me and that pitch. I threw it and got a big strikeout. I knew I could make the pitch. Then we got the double play to get out of the jam. That inning showed me a lot about my teammates and the trust they have in me. I truthfully feel that I'm growing so much as a pitcher."
Locke, the lone two-time New Hampshire Player of the Year, led Kennett High in home runs his junior and seniors years. He's yet to hit a home run in the Major Leagues.
"I've got to have a batting average first," he said, laughing. Locke is 0-14 at the plate with one walk this spring. "I don't think I'm going to hit one out any time soon. Pitchers are told never to make an out on the pull side and I think the only way I've got a shot is if I pull the ball."
Locke said he loves the support he receives from his hometown community and hopes people will make the trek to a Pittsburgh game.
"I'm trying to pull my mom and dad down for another game," he said. "I want to be able to share this with them and everyone back home. I don't know if this makes any sense but Pittsburgh is a pretty big small city. It's big in a sense that everyone knows where it is, but you're only two or three miles away from being out in the country which I like. The fans here are great, they're so passionate the Pirates."
Locke will be facing the Brewers for the second time this season on Saturday. He pitched six innings of seven-hit ball earning a no decision while striking out six and yielding three runs against the Brewers on May 14 in a game the Pirates ultimately won 4-3.
"I feel like Saturday will be the next big test for me," Locke said. "It'll be the first time I face team for the second time this season; that's going to be another big game."