Published DateBy Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — Jeff Locke, the new fifth starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates, closed out spring training in style Thursday by hurling six scoreless innings and picking up the victory in a 2-1 win over the New York Yankees in the final Grapefruit League game for both clubs at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
Locke, a 2006 Kennett High graduate and the son of Pam and Alan Locke of Redstone, closes out the spring with a team-best three wins and a 2.63 earned run average in seven games spanning 27 and a third innings.
The Pirates broke camp following the game and headed north for opening day. The Bucs will play one more game before Sunday's pre-opening day workout and Monday's season opener against the Cubs at PNC Park. Pittsburgh will play its Double-A affiliate in Altoona on Saturday at 2:05 p.m.
The Pirates made the formal announcement Wednesday morning that the talented lefty will be on the team's opening day roster and is scheduled to make his season debut April 7 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.
"It's been exciting," Locke said by phone Wednesday afternoon from Bradenton, Florida, "absolutely exciting. I really don't know what to say than dreams do come true. That makes all of the getting up at 5 in the morning, paying my dues, getting in all my work all worthwhile.
"All in all," he added, "I've got to be honest, this day ranks right up there with being told for the first time that I was being called up to the Major Leagues and getting my first win in the big leagues. This takes things to a whole another level."
Locke said he got the official news Wednesday morning, although some of his teammates leaked the word.
"I found out at 8:30 a.m.," he said. "(Laughing) I think a few of the other guys already knew because they were squeaking out 'congratulations, Locke' to me. I said, 'For what?' And they said, 'For coming in at 8:30 a.m.' today so I knew something was up."
Manger Clint Hurdle chose Locke over right-hander Kyle McPherson for the fifth spot. McPherson was optioned back to Triple-A Indianapolis.
"No. 1, the rotation is the best since I've been here," said Hurdle to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." And I've got to believe (it's) the best since (Neal Huntington, general manager) has been here."
Of Locke, Hurdle said, "I like the growth, the biggest from anyone I've seen from last year. The fastball's got more life than you think, the breaking ball can be sharp and when his change-up arrives, this will be a guy with some weapons."
Huntington, a Granite State native, too, called Locke the most improved player in camp this spring and liked his overall consistency. He said management was impressed with the quality of Locke's pitches and his ability to attack hitters on both sides of the plate.
"There were some things within each outing, some mistakes within each outing that we can overcome," Huntington said. "There's also some quality of stuff within each outing that allows us to feel — as we project him pitching against playoff-caliber teams — that allows us to feel comfortable that he's going to have some success."
Locke said this spring was about honing his craft, and being taken under the wings of veteran starters AJ Burnett and James McDonald, who he lockers between, has done wonders for his confidence.
"They made me feel that I'm definitely a part of this and they were all pulling for me," he said. "Now I've been given the opportunity to help the club from opening day on. I think I can help the team. I feel like I'm in such a position to contribute on a regular basis. This spring I tried to be consistent and find a way to make an impact. I'm learning every day how to be a more complete pitcher. I really do believe the best is still ahead."
Locke shared the news of his roster spot with a phone call to his dad.
"It was a pretty emotional moment for both of us," he said. "We got choked up, especially when he told me he was proud of me. I didn't need to hear him say he was proud, I already know it. I can't say enough about the support my parents have given me. From day one they've been in my corner and we've lived this dream together. That kind of support brings out that kind of confidence in me. (Laughing) You can call me a Mama's boy. Yes, I call my Mom every day, and that's not going to change."
Locke was locked in Thursday at the Yankees and pitched a gem. Over six innings he scattered four hits; walked none and struck out three; and even picked off Ichiro Suzuki.
Hurdle said he has been impressed with Locke's development as a starter, adding he believes Locke has grown more than any player he had in camp. And he's still developing, Hurdle said, noting his changeup is still coming around.
"When that thing arrives," Hurdle said, "I think he's going to be a guy that has real weapons."
Locke can't wait for opening day when he and his teammates will be introduced to an expected sellout crowd in Pittsburgh on Monday.
"Opening day has always been something special to me," he said. "I remember my first opening day with the Royals marching down Main Street to Schouler Park as a youngster. Now, I'm one of the best 25 players on the Pittsburgh Pirates and I'll be at PNC Park on Monday when we play the Cubs.
"I've always just played baseball growing up," Locke continued. "I've always wanted to be a Major League pitcher for as long as I can remember. To come from New Hampshire, which isn't known as a baseball hotbed, and not take no for an answer — when I go to sleep at I night I can say I've made it. I'm proud of my accomplishment — I made the opening day roster. That to me is a lot different in my eyes than being called up in mid-season or September when the rosters expand."
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. Drafted in the second round out of Kennett High School in 2006 by the Braves, Locke was the first prospect from that Braves class to reach the Majors.