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Battle for Pirates' 5th starter already under way

| Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage watches over pitchers Kyle McPherson (left) and Jeff Locke Wednesday Jan. 9, 2013 during minicamp at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke

BRADENTON, Fla. — During spring training, the Pirates likely will choose Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke to be the No. 5 starter. But the battle for that job actually began more than a month before last season ended.

Locke was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis on Aug. 9 and pitched in eight games (six starts). McPherson made his big-league debut Aug. 20 and had 10 outings (three starts).

“You try to get your foot in the door,” McPherson said. “Once you get your foot in the door, you try to push it open and get established. That's what Locke and I are doing at this stage of the game. We're going to go toe-to-toe and see how it shakes out.”

Even though spring training won't start for another four weeks, Locke and McPherson already are working out at Pirate City. Both attended the voluntary minicamp last week.

“We're down here early trying to make sure we have everything in order and we're ready to go,” McPherson said. “He's definitely going to be biting at the bit, just like I am. It's going to be a good battle.”

At first glance, McPherson and Locke have a lot in common. They were born nine days apart in November 1987. Both were standout high school players. They're tall and lanky and have outgoing personalities. Both were impressive last season in Triple-A.

When you see Locke around Pirate City, McPherson is usually nearby. Their lockers are side by side, and they hang out together before each day's workouts.

Yet they are hardly mirror images. Locke is a left-hander; McPherson is a righty. A New Hampshire native, Locke was a second-round draft pick. McPherson, who grew up in Alabama, was selected in the 14th round.

Locke was first called up in 2011 and has pitched 51 innings in the majors, twice as many as McPherson. On the mound, they go about their work a bit differently, too.

“McPherson is a lot more aggressive,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “We're going to have to pull the reins back on him a little bit because he's like, ‘All right, I'm coming right at you.' Jeffrey is more mentally into the sequences. He's going to try to execute a pitch that he knows is one of your weaknesses.

Left, right. North, south. High pick, middle-rounder. Inexperienced, even more inexperienced. Regardless, the Pirates believe both are ready to show they belong in the big leagues on Opening Day.

“It's a competition that goes deeper than the ones in the past, where you just want to make a team — you want to go to Double-A, you want to go to Triple-A,” Locke said. “Now you're fighting for a rotation spot in the big leagues. It's going to be a lot of fun, a friendly competition. They're going to take the best 25 (players) north, and I want to be part of that.”

Locke has a good fastball that touches 93 mph, and his curveball and changeup are becoming more reliable. Searage agrees with scouts who say Locke can do a better job with pitch selection and needs to conceal the ball better out of the stretch.

Midway through spring training last year, McPherson was sidelined by a sore shoulder. The injury forced him to sit out the first two months for Double-A Altoona. He hoped to make up for lost time by playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but the shoulder flared up again. When tendinitis set in, McPherson was shut down and flew home.

“Everything's gone well (with rehab) so far, so I'll be ready for spring (training),” McPherson said. “I'm probably just a little bit behind ... (but) I expect to be 100 percent by Day 1.”

McPherson's fastball has a bit more velocity than Locke's, and he is more of a flyball pitcher.

“Mac will stay up in the zone a little bit and will get by because of his velocity,” Searage said. “But he's got to make sure his fastball keeps its angle and he keeps it down in the zone, then come up on purpose when he wants.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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