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Pirates pitcher Locke determined to put poor 2013 finish behind him

| Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, 6:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke delivers during live batting practice Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Even when things were spiraling downward for him last season, the last thing Jeff Locke wanted to do was back away from his problems.

Over his first 18 starts, Locke seemed almost bulletproof on the mound. He went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP and was named to the NL All-Star team. But the left-hander won just two of his final 12 starts. His ERA in that span was 6.12, and his WHIP grew to 1.87.

Locke hurt his back in July while lifting weights. The injury prevented him from being available to pitch in the All-Star Game. It also threw his routine out of whack for a few weeks, which magnified his struggles.

Management mulled taking Locke out of the rotation, if only for a few starts, to give him a chance to regroup. At first, Locke resisted.

“We had a sit-down, and he said, ‘I'm not going to run away from trouble up here the first time I get into it. I'm going to continue to grind,' ” manager Clint Hurdle said. “But he eventually got to a point where we didn't think he had enough gas in the tank to be put in a competitive spot.”

At the end of August, Locke was sent to Double-A Altoona. He didn't pitch for the Curve; the move was merely a way to give him a breather without wasting a major league roster spot.

Locke returned, started four games for the Pirates in September and lost three of them. As the regular season went into its final week, Locke finally was shut down. He was not on the Pirates' playoff roster.

“I don't know if there's any one single thing that happened to Jeff,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “His back grabbed on him, and it impacted his between-starts preparation — his weight work, his conditioning, his recovery. Add to that a little bit of bad luck. Some balls that were being softly hit for outs early in the season started dropping for hits. Things began to come apart for him, and his confidence began to wane.”

In the final two months of the season, Locke frantically tried to come up with answers for everything that was going wrong. Once the season was over, however, Locke didn't spend much time looking back.

“I lost a lot more sleep during the season than I did during the offseason when it comes to performance,” Locke said. “A lot of guys question what they could have done to improve things. But it's all said and done now. On to the next one.”

Locke usually spends his offseasons at home in New Hampshire. But last November, he moved into an apartment in Florida and began working out regularly at Pirate City. He attended the voluntary minicamp in early January.

“I need to prove to the guys (on the team) and the coaching staff that I am committed,” Locke said.

Huntington still believes Locke can be an effective big league pitcher. Locke's 1.23 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was second-best in the league, and he had a solid rate of 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

“The walk rate (4.5 per nine innings) must improve. There's no question about that,” Huntington said. “But if we get him back to being aggressive and confident, we're going to have a very strong major league pitcher again.”

The departure of Locke's close friend, righty A.J. Burnett, created an opening in the starting rotation. There could be another if Wandy Rodriguez's cranky left arm acts up again. But the Pirates signed Edinson Volquez for $5 million, giving Locke competition for a rotation job.

“I've never worried about guys we sign in the offseason,” Locke said. “I told everybody last year that I can help this club win games. I was there, and I contributed. I felt like I held up my end. Now it's back to square one again.”

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

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