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Locke's stingy starts boost Pirates' rotation

| Monday, April 29, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
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Pirates starter Jeff Locke pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 28, 2013 in St. Louis.

MILWAUKEE — When Jeff Locke exited his April 18 start against the Braves, it appeared the Pirates had yet another question mark in their rotation.

There already were concerns about James McDonald's decreased velocity, and there was a glaring lack of production from the rotation spot occupied by Jonathan Sanchez, who was officially demoted to the bullpen Monday.

Against the Braves, Locke had allowed his third home run of the game, a mammoth Justin Upton homer off a changeup, a shot which rebounded off the left-field rotunda some 430 feet away. He walked two before being pulled. His ERA then — 5.17 — looked much like the mark he had posted last season (5.50) and in 2011 (6.48).

“The last couple of years I've had nothing but tough outings, tough outings and tough outings,” Locke said Monday. “Something had to change.”

And something has changed for the 25-year-old lefty. What has followed that April 18 start for Locke is a run of 13 scoreless innings over two starts at Philadelphia and at St. Louis, dropping his ERA to 2.83.

The efforts have not only strengthened his grasp on a starting rotation spot with rehabbing starters Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton nearly ready to rejoin the club, but his past two outings have also aided a pitching staff that has struggled to produce quality starts.

“The biggest thing I've learned over the past couple of years, especially this year, is I need to still continue to do what I do well even if it plays into their strengths,” Locke said.

“You just have to challenge (hitters). That's something, even earlier on this season, I kind of pitched away from what I do well.”

Locke got away from what he does well, which is commanding his two- and four-seam fastballs, and aggressively attacking the corners of the strike zone. In four minor league stops, Locke averaged fewer than two walks per nine innings.

Against a strong Cardinals club Sunday, Locke walked two and allowed only three hits over seven innings, saving a bullpen that entered second in the league in innings pitched. He has walked four during his 13-inning scoreless streak.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Locke might have been helped by watching another lefty on the staff.

“I think there's been some benefit in watching Wandy (Rodriguez) pitch and going back out there because they are similar in a lot of different ways,” Hurdle said. “The No. 1 thing is he's throwing strikes. He's throwing strike one. He's been ahead in 60 to 65 percent of the counts (his last two starts).”

Locke said perhaps for the first time, he is comfortable on a major league field.

“Now when I take the mound, I truly feel like it's my day,” Locke said. “I'm not here because someone is not. To me, the biggest thing is trusting what you have and going with it.”

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