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Locke outduels mentor Burnett as Pirates sweep Phillies

| Sunday, July 6, 2014, 4:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers to the Pirates' Josh Harrison during the third inning Sunday, July 6, 2014, at PNC Park.

The pupil upstaged the mentor Sunday in a Pirates' 6-2 victory.

Last season, Jeff Locke shadowed A.J. Burnett. Wherever Burnett was, whether in the bullpen or the clubhouse dining room, Locke was near. The young left-hander observed how Burnett pitched. He asked questions about the veteran's approach. As Burnett returned to the PNC Park mound Sunday, they faced each other for the first time. They shared a quick pre-game embrace as they walked to their respective bullpens when Burnett offered more advice.

“We said a few short words before the game,” Locke said. “(Burnett) said ‘Have fun. Embrace it.' ”

Locke embraced it. And Locke demonstrated he was an excellent student. In securing the Pirates' first sweep of the season, he allowed one earned run and three hits over eight innings.

While Locke was excellent, Burnett was the early story.

As he approached the mound after the top of the first inning, Burnett was greeted with a rousing ovation from 33,048. A package of his Pirates' highlights played on the stadium video board. Burnett watched the video before beginning his warm-up throws. He waved his cap to the crowd and toward the Pirates' dugout.

“The video caught me by surprise,” Burnett said. “It was very moving, for sure. It made me feel at home. (The ovation) caught me off guard. I didn't know what to expect coming in. Very classy.”

The rest of the afternoon was all about Locke.

Locke posted his sixth straight quality start and outpitched Burnett, who allowed three runs in seven innings. Locke is pitching well enough to make sending him back to Triple-A a difficult decision.

Has Locke forced his way in the rotation?

“Question for another day,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I really like the way he's pitching.”

Burnett's impact on Locke's resurgence is apparent. Burnett's trademark pitch, taught to him by his grandfather, is the knuckle-curveball. Locke struck out Cody Asche with a knuckle-curve to begin the second.

“We spent a lot of time last year refining, trying to get me to throw a consistent enough curveball that I felt good with,” Locke said. “We would compete even playing catch last year, trying to throw a great curveball.”

Last season, Locke saw how Burnett owned the inside half of the plate with his two-seam fastball. Locke pitched inside without fear Sunday. He had a superb 15-to-1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio.

“I was throwing two-seamers in, he was throwing two-seamers in,” Locke said. “He taught me a lot about how to attack people.”

Locke has evolved since Burnett has departed. His changeup is better. In the second, Locke got Cameron Rupp to swing and miss on a changeup that had so much fading action, it looked like a screwball.

What Locke has also done post-Burnett is throw more strikes. After control issues contributed to his lackluster second half last season, Locke has pounded the strike zone. He walked just one Sunday and has walked six in 49 23 innings since being recalled from Triple-A.

Locke allowed just two runs. Pedro Alvarez's major league-worst 18th error of the season allowed Jimmy Rollins to reach second and later score on a Marlon Byrd single in the first. Byrd also homered in the seventh.

Locke was supported by Russell Martin's two-run double in the first, and Josh Harrison tripled and scored in the third.

“Tip your cap to (Locke) today,” Burnett said. “He was on. He's been on his last couple starts. … I think he's always had it in him.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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