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All-star Watson blows late lead as Reds rally past Pirates

| Friday, July 11, 2014, 10:39 p.m.

CINCINNATI — Tony Watson is an All-Star. He has been one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball. He will represent the Pirates in Minneapolis next week, but Watson did not pitch like an All-Star on Friday night in Cincinnati in a 6-5 loss to the Reds.

The left-hander was brought in to protect a two-run lead in the eighth but instead produced the Pirates' 15th blown save of the season. That is tied for second in the major leagues and matches the Pirates' blown save total for all of last season.

Watson, who entered with a 0.84 ERA, had not allowed a home run since April 19 until Devin Mesoraco smashed a 96 mph fastball off the facing of the second deck in left field to cut the Pirates' lead to one. With two outs, Ramon Santiago tied it with a groundball single to center to score Ryan Ludwick, and Bryan Pena followed with a line-drive single to center to score Chris Heisey and give the Reds a 6-5 lead.

“I couldn't put anyone away when I needed to,” Watson said. “I was getting too much of the plate. … It's just one of those nights.”

Watson allowed five hits and three runs in two-thirds of an inning. His ERA spiked to 1.45. The bullpen has been tagged for three losses in the past five games. The Pirates are 12-25 against the division, excluding the Cubs.

“They were all two-strike hits,” Pirate manager Clint Hurdle said. “He has been lights-out for us all year.”

Reds closer Aroldis Chapman slammed the door in the ninth as another quality Jeff Locke start, and home runs from Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, were wasted.

Locke was an All-Star last season. He's not going to Minneapolis next week, but he might be an even better pitcher.

He made his seventh straight quality start Friday, allowing one earned run over 6 23 innings.

Locke, 26, continued with the same plan Friday that has led him to success since being recalled from Triple-A: The lefty attacked the strike zone and leaned increasingly on a swing-and-miss changeup.

Locke did not walk a batter, and his walks-per-nine innings rate has fallen to 0.96 after he led the NL with 84 walks last season.

The other difference with Locke is his changeup. He generated five swinging strikes in the first inning, which matched or exceeded his swinging strike total in 10 starts from last season. Of the 14 swinging strikes Locke generated, nine came via changeups. Four of his five strikeouts came on changeups.

“Since I've come back up this year, I've had struggles with a consistent breaking ball,” Locke said. “I don't know if it's the fact the ball is completely different compared to up here.

“The changeup has been very reliable.”

Locke's ERA fell to 3.05 on the season. And unlike last season when he out-pitched his fielding-independent pitching value, this year his FIP (2.94) is lower than his ERA. That suggests this Locke is unlikely to have a second-half slide.

While Watson blew a Locke win opportunity, Alvarez's major league-worst 19th error did not help.

His MLB-worst 18th throwing error of the season might have been his worst throw of the season. Alvarez fielded a routine chopper from Ryan Ludwick in the seventh and uncorked a throw that sailed above the head of Gaby Sanchez by at least 10 feet as it came to rest well beyond the first-base fence. No other major league player has more than 10 throwing errors. The error led to two unearned runs.

Alvarez's throwing issues have become chronic, and so have the bullpen breakdowns.

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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