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Locke is perfect in 2.1 innings of Major League relief

8-10-jeff-locke-vs.-d-backsCONWAY — Jeff Locke extended his scoreless innings streak to 19 in a row Thursday, but the latest 2.1 innings were pretty special — they came in the Major Leagues.

Locke, 24, of Redstone, made his first relief appearance of the summer Thursday when he took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates at home in PNC Park against the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks. The son of Pam and Alan Locke, also of Redstone, Locke was promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis Wednesday, marking his third call up to the big leagues in the past two season. He's hoping he can help the Pirates in their pennant chase.

The Pirates were trailing 6-3 in the top of the seventh with two outs and a runner on second when Locke entered the game. The Redstone Rocket had made 21 starts at Indianapolis this summer, but was ready for relief duty. Locke faced seven batters over 2.1 innings and got them all out, seven up, seven down. He threw 37 pitches, 22 of which were strikes, walked none and struck out one batter. His fastball topped out at 93 miles per hour while his slowest off-speed pitch clocked in at 77.

Locke got Diamondback's third baseman Chris Johnson to fly out to right-field to end the seventh inning.

In the eighth, Locke, the lone New Hampshire two-time player of the year, got Chris Young to ground out third to first; Wil Nieves, who homered in the sixth inning, to pop out to first; and pinch-hitter Ryan Wheeler to ground out second to first to end the inning.

In the top of the ninth, Stephen Drew grounded out first to pitcher; Aaron Hill struck out swinging on a 3-2 curveball; and Jason Kubel, who had hit two home runs earlier in the game, grounded out second to first to end the inning.

Over his last 10 starts, Locke 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.

For the second cosecutive week Locke was listed on Baseball America's Hot Prospect Sheet that was unveiled Friday afternoon.

"Everyone wants to talk about Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia, but don't sleep on Pirates 24-year-old LHP Jeff Locke," the report states. "With 7.1 shutout innings on Aug. 3, Locke lowered his ERA to 2.66 in 125 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis, then got called up to Pittsburgh for the stretch run. Locke looks like a solid bet to be at least a back-end starter, but there could be even more in there."

Locke arrived PNC Park Wednesday afternoon in time for the Pirates' playoff team photo. He found out he had a new jersey number. Gone was No. 61 from his previous two call-ups — it's now No. 49 (the same number Tim Wakefield wore for the club before joining the Red Sox). He found it hanging between the lockers for A.J. Burnett and James McDonald.

"I don't know how I pulled this locker," he said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But he wasn't going to let the opportunity go to waste. Locke arrived with four career major league appearances and eager to learn as much as possible — especially from Burnett, the team's leader.

"Picking his brain, or he's picking on me," Locke said.

Manager Clint Hurdle said Locke's brief time on the Major League roster last season has been helpful to the young pitcher.

"He was able to get a big bite out of experience last year, being up in September, getting the ball, getting the opportunity to pitch," Hurdle told the Post-Gazette. "I think he's in a much better place now to compete."

The Pirates optioned outfielder Alex Presley to Indianapolis to make room for Locke on the active roster. Presley cannot rejoin the Major League team for at least 10 days, unless someone is put on the disabled list.

Locke made four big league starts for the Pirates last September, 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 received 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, was in the bullpen for three games and then reassigned back to the minor league club without stepping on the mound.

Pittsburgh, who last posted a winning season in 1992, is 63-48 this summer and is trailing Cincinnati by 2.5 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 51 games left to play.

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