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Biertempfel: Pirates lefty Locke settles into rotation

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:03 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke delivers to the plate during the second inning against the Nationals on Saturday, May 4, 2013, at PNC Park.

At the start of the season, Jeff Locke almost seemed like an afterthought in the starting rotation.

Locke won the No. 5 spot in spring training but wasn't especially dazzling. The lefty put up good numbers (3-1, 2.63 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) in seven Grapefruit League outings. His competition, righty Kyle McPherson, was awful (0-3, 8.46, 1.57).

In his season debut April 7 against the Dodgers, Locke gave up four runs in six innings and took a loss. After three starts, Locke still was toting a 5.17 ERA. It looked like a sure bet he would be sent packing to Triple-A Indianapolis as soon as Francisco Liriano was ready to come off the disabled list.

Liriano made his second start Thursday. Not only is Locke still here — he will start Sunday against the Houston Astros — he has a grip on the No. 4 spot. The 25-year-old left-hander is arguably one of the top reasons the Pirates have surged into the middle of May.

“Jeff has picked up his game,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Locke has worked at least six innings in four of his past five starts — a boon for the often-overworked bullpen. Since April 23, he's gone 2-0 with three no-decisions and shaved more than two points off his ERA.

“He's been doing the same thing every outing: being consistent and keeping us in the game,” catcher Russell Martin said. “He competes out there.”

Although opponents have racked up a whopping 38 stolen bases against the Pirates this season, they are 0-2 against Locke.

“I'm left-handed, so I can see the guy over at first base, and it's a bit easier,” Locke said. “Don't let them get on base. That works, too.”

One locker stall away, A.J. Burnett laughed. “It's that easy, huh?” Burnett said.

Locke shrugged and smiled. “He was just waiting for me to say something he could make a comment about,” Locke said.

There's a constant stream of good-natured teasing between Burnett and Locke, with the young lefty usually on the receiving end. But their relationship goes deeper. Burnett, 36, has become Locke's sounding board and mentor.

“I always say this and people laugh and joke, but it's a luxury being able to go out there (to pitch) the night after A.J.,” Locke said. “He's been throwing the ball so well this season. It's always encouraging to see what he does, then go out there the next night and try to (match) it. It could be any of these guys, really, but it happens to be him. He's a guy I've spent a lot of time with. I'm fortunate.”

Locke does not have as much zip on his fastball as Burnett, and he'll never be among the league leaders in strikeouts. But you don't have too look hard to see a bit of Burnett in Locke.

They have similar approaches. Burnett uses his curveball an atypically high amount when he's ahead in the count or gets a two-strike count. So does Locke.

Burnett stays cool under pressure and has the veteran's gift of shrugging off the one bad pitch that gets creamed for a two-run homer. Even just a year ago, Locke would allow hiccups to explode into train-wreck innings.

Now he has grit when he pitches. That quality, more than anything else, could be what determines how long and productive his career ends up being.

“This is the same guy who, when he came up (in 2011), all we talked about was the big inning of homers he'd allow in every game,” Hurdle said. “We're not talking about that anymore.”

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

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