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Pirates' Locke ready to take step back

| Sunday, March 23, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke talks with shortstop Clint Barmes on the mound during the fourth inning against the Yankees on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.

SARASOTA, Fla. — A National League All-Star last year, Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke will begin this season in the starting rotation at Triple-A Indianapolis. And he's fine with that.

For now.

Discomfort in his right oblique derailed Locke's schedule after his first Grapefruit League outing Feb. 27. He skipped his next start but still felt out of sorts. Locke has spent the past couple of weeks rehabbing the injury.

With less than a week left in spring training, Locke finally is ready to get back on the mound. He threw a 45-pitch bullpen session Saturday and tentatively is scheduled to pitch Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“About a week ago, I realized I wasn't going to make it for the (start of the) season,” Locke said Sunday. “I just ran out of time to get stretched out. That's OK with me. If that's how it has to be, that's how it will be.

“It's just that sometimes, you feel like you're on the outside looking in, and you want to know how you can get inside. All I can do is take care of myself. The Pirates will do what they have to do, too. Ultimately, they'll take the best 25 guys north. I said that last year when I made the club, and I say it again now when I'm not making it. That's just the way it is.”

A year ago, Locke outpitched Kyle McPherson during spring training to win the No. 5 spot in the rotation. It turned out McPherson might have been hurt during camp; he made two short, disastrous starts at Indy before having season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Locke won eight consecutive starts in the first half of the season but was scratched from his final start before the All-Star Game because of a sore lower back. After the break, he went 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA and was shut down in September.

“When he tweaked his back, he had to get off the strength program he was doing in between starts,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “So it became getting up on the mound every fifth day without doing all of the maintenance work that he had been able to keep in play. It wasn't the same fight for him. But many lessons were learned.”

When he hurt his oblique this spring, Locke didn't want to be shut down entirely again. He realizes what he needs to do to get back on the mound sooner.

“I've put together a slightly different pre-throw routine this spring, just making sure I'm good and hot when I go out there,” Locke said. “I'm not taking any chances of being cold or tight anywhere. It's something that's kind of non-baseball related, but we still learn things every day. I'm feeling really good and very confident about the season.”

When the Pirates gave Edinson Volquez a $5 million contract this past winter, Locke knew he would have a difficult time regaining a rotation spot. The oblique injury clinched his assignment to Indy, although the team hasn't finalized that move.

“So many people wondered, ‘What about Jeff Locke?' We haven't,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We still believe we've got a guy with quality major league pitches who gets ground balls. His challenge is finding consistency in the strike zone. He's going to help us at some point this season.”

Locke made a combined 29 starts with Indianapolis in 2011 and 2012. He doesn't want to spend much more time there but realizes he has to answer questions about his durability.

“Absolutely, there's a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Locke said. “As a player, you always want to prove your worth. You always want to contribute or at least put forth something that shows why you're here.”

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

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