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Back in The Show: Locke called up for Pirates pennant race

CONWAY — Jeff Locke is heading back to the Major Leagues and joined the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday finding himself smack dab in the middle of a pennant race.

Over his last 10 starts, Locke — nicknamed The Redstone Rocket — had been arguably the best pitcher in the Triple A International League with the first place Indianapolis Indians, going 5-2 with a 1.98 earned run average while striking out 53 and walking just 24 batters. Locke was a lock to get a September call-up to the big leagues, something he enjoyed last year, when the rosters expand from 24 to 30 players, but the Pirates need him now.

Pittsburgh, who last posted a winning season in 1992, is 62-47 this summer and is trailing Cincinnati by 3.5 games in the National League Central Division, but is tied with Atlanta for the National League Wildcard (there are two instead of one Wildcards this season) and they hold a 2.5 game cushion over St. Louis with 53 games left to play.

Locke, the son of Alan and Pam Locke of Redstone, got the call from the Pirates late Tuesday night after Indianapolis had played at home that he was being promoted and to report to Pittsburgh Wednesday.

"I gathered up some of my equipment, went home and packed up some other stuff, and was on the road at 7 a.m.," Locke said by phone Wednesday, just half an hour from Pittsburgh at noon. "They want me at the ballpark at 2 p.m. ...I think it's a good sign that they have me driving here instead of flying. The big question though is what's my role going to be? My (next) start date is not until tomorrow (Locke usually takes the mound every fifth day). That seems a little fishy to me that they would start me on four days rest so I don't think I'm starting tonight. It's also hard to believe that I would be pitching (Thursday) since the team already has five starters.

"... I really don't know what's going to happen whether I'm here for two days or two months," he added. "The one thing I do know is I'm incredibly excited. I'll play it by ear. I'm willing to do anything to help the team. To be in a pennant race and to have the team have confidence in me, it's and honor. It gets you pumped up. You want to go out and kick some butt for the Pirates."

Locke made four big league starts for the Pirates, including getting the ball on the final day of the season in Milwaukee where he denied National League MVP Ryan Braun the batting title by retiring him twice. Locke threw a record number of innings last season with 170 total between AA and the Majors.

He caught Pirates' manager Clint Hurdle's eye and made a good impression last September.

"It could turn out to be an invaluable experience," Hurdle said of Locke's time with the Major League club. "I think he's learned a lot already, and the biggest thing for most of those guys that came up in September is that they have a lot more to learn."

Hurdle's familiarity with Locke led to a brief call-up at the end of May for four days when relief pitcher Jason Grilli went on the Pirates' bereavement list. Locke, the all-time leader in wins for Kennett High and the lone two-time New Hampshire Player of the Year, was in the bullpen for three games and then reassigned back to the minor league club without stepping on the mound.

Locke (7.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 10 K) was outstanding in his 21st start for Indianapolis Friday, throwing into the eighth inning for the first time in 2012. He had thrown exactly seven innings six times coming into the game. With the win he improved to 9-5 on the season.

His 10 strikeouts were one shy of his season high; Locke struck out 11 Bats on May 27 in Louisville. Meanwhile, he has now tossed 14.1 straight scoreless innings across his past two outings, posting impressive numbers (14.1 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 9 SO).

Locke is now third in ERA in the International League with a 2.66 ERA, trailing just Tyler Cloyd of Lehigh Valley (of the Philadelphia Phillies affiliate, 1.93) and Justin German of Pawtucket (Boston Red Sox, 2.40); ranks fourth in the league in strikeouts with 113 (leader has 128); and is seventh in wins (five are tied with 11 and one has 10).

Locke's stellar effort led to his ninth win of the season, at the time making him the 12th International League hurler to reach that total in 2012.

"I pitched my tailed off for those guys (in Indianapolis) all season and we're in first place and in a great position to win a championships there," Locke said, "but this is bigger and better opportunity with the parent club. I can't believe the kind of season the Pirates are having and for me to be given an opportunity to be a part of it is such an adrenaline rush. It doesn't matter if it's the Gulf Coast (rookie league) or Triple-A, minor league ball is all the same no matter how you slice it, it's a whole different level at the Major Leagues. I feel very fortunate.

"... I'm excited," he continued. "The initial excitement of the first call up, there's no other time like that excitement, but it's still special."

Locke believes his pitching the best he has at any point in his career.

"I think that has a lot to do with the call-up," he said, laughing. "If I was struggling I'm pretty sure the phone wouldn't have rang, but the Pirates see I'm pitching well, have been on a hot streak and want to see if I can help them now, which I hope I can. I think I'm at the point in the season and in my career that I'm ready to accept the next challenge and that's not to say I had Triple-A figured out by any means, but my numbers have been very good there."

For the season at Indianapolis, Locke has pitched 125 innings and allowed 115 hits; 40 runs (37 are earned); yielded 9 home runs; walked 38; and struck out 113. Opponents are batting just .247 against him.

The Pirates have the same coaching staff as last season and Locke said he knows most of his new teammates from either playing with them last year or in the minor leagues or at spring training in February and March.

"I shouldn't have any trouble getting comfortable with the guys," Locke said, "I'm really looking forward to hopefully being part of something special. ...(Laughing) You know when you've made it to the Majors — it's when you only have one ear flap on your (batting) helmet. ...I feel incredibly fortunate."
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