Published DateBy Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — If you're only as good as your last game, then consider Jeff Locke to be very good. Locke, the Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 Organization Pitcher of the Year, recorded his first Major League win Oct. 1, spinning a two-hitter over six innings to beat the Atlanta Braves, the team that originally drafted him.
Locke, 25, from Redstone, is in his second big league spring training camp with the Pirates and has a shot of breaking camp next month with a spot in the starting rotation. It's something the talented left-hander has been working towards since heading to Bradenton, Florida the first week in January, preparing for his opportunity. A big step in that opportunity could come Saturday when the Pirates play their first spring training game, traveling to play the Rays in Tampa. Locke, the son of Pam and Alan Locke of Redstone, is slated to get some work in that contest.
Locke and right-hander Kyle McPherson, 25, are the clubhouse leaders in the competition for the final spot in the starting rotation, a competition that will unfold over the course of spring training.
"Obviously it's an opportunity that everybody wishes they had," Locke, said last week. "You wish it was already yours."
Manager Clint Hurdle said the Pirates have "a number of candidates" available for the final rotation spot.
"There's always that fine line in spring training how much competition actually takes place," Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week. "What's the quality of the hitters they're facing when they're out there, and things like that. You just try to be smart, you use your eyes, you watch them following the glove."
As the Pirates found out last season, when they lost AJ Burnett, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton to injuries, the competition might soon become irrelevant.
"If you worry about it too much it's going to slow you down," Locke said. "We've got a bunch of guys around here if they need to fill a fifth spot, there's so much talent around here that they can do that with no problem."
Locke, who was drafted in the second round out of Kennett High School in 2006 by the Atlanta Braves, was the first prospect from that Braves class to reach the Majors.
After dominating the minor leagues for the bulk of last summer where for a 10-week stretch he never lost and was arguably the top starting pitcher in the International League, Locke got called up to "The Show."
Locke, who was named Pittsburgh's Minor League Pitcher of the Year for Triple-A Indianapolis, went 10-5 with a 2.48 ERA and 131 strikeouts over 141 2/3 innings in 24 starts for the Indianapolis Indians last summer. He was very impressive in his final six minor league games, posting a 0.75 ERA with 41 strikeouts over 36 innings.
"He's made a lot of progress," Hurdle told the Pirates' official website. "The next step is to check it out here."
Locke was a September call-up in 2011 and made four starts for the Bucs, but never got that first W.
Win No. 1 came in his 10th Major League start when he beat the Atlanta Braves 2-1 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh before 15,009 spectators. It knocked the Braves out of the top seed for the fall playoffs. Locke struck out six in the victory.
"All in all it feels good to get it out of the way so that people don't talk about it anymore so that if you lose 150 more, then I'll still have the win," Locke said with a laugh following the win.
Locke talked about his expectations for the upcoming season and reflected on his first win (you can see the interview at http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=25600409&source=MLB&topic_id=8877442&c_id=pit&tcid=facebook_embedded_player).
"It was a tremendous honor," Locke said on being named the organization's minor league pitcher of the year. "Anytime you can go out and compete for an entire season at any level, from April to the end of the season, have your start and go out and compete, compete, and everything else sort of takes care of itself at the end of the year. Obviously, pitching in Triple-A this past year I had a tremendous team behind me, one of the best minor league teams I've ever been on in my entire life. A lot of credit goes to those guys as well."
Locke said he's more comfortable in his spring surroundings than at any other time in his professional career.
"The nervousness is toned down a little bit, I'm not going to say it's gone away," he said. "The expectation is there and you know what to expect now. You know how to handle yourself much better. You know, you do the things day in and day out to prepare yourself. The first time around the big leagues I think it's kind of shock and awe that you're in the big leagues. Now, it's just time to to be a contributor as opposed to being a survivor.
"There's definitely younger and unfamiliar faces around but I think that's every year that you come to spring training," Locke added. "They're just not mine anymore. It's definitely good to see the youth around. We've obviously got some big, big power arms, young, a lot of youth, but of course we've got a lot of veteran leadership as well. If we can find a happy medium in there between we'll have a pretty good team."
Locke, who came home to the Granite State after the season, has had a chance to reflect on his accomplishments.
"I had a lot of time in the off-season, with (the start against the Braves) being my last start to really reflect on the season," he said. "Now, I'm looking to see what I can improve on, and areas where I just need to stay where I'm at. Winning that game at the end of the year meant a lot to me, especially it coming against the Braves, it was the team that brought me into pro baseball. What an honor to win that game and having all of my teammates behind me with their support. It was a tight game, close game, and we came out on top — it's definitely the highlight so far."