Walk-off homer by Braves' Bethancourt downs Pirates
ATLANTA — The question entering Saturday was how long Jeff Locke would remain in the starting rotation. One replacement candidate, Vance Worley, didn't make much of a case to take the job during a 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves.
Worley, the Pirates' long man out of the bullpen, came on to pitch the bottom of the ninth in a tie game at Turner Field. Christian Bethancourt smashed Worley's first pitch just inside the right-field foul pole for a walk-off home run. It was Bethancourt's first career home run, and it ended the Pirates' four-game winning streak.
Teammates mobbed Bethancourt at home plate as Worley and the Pirates slowly walked off the field.
“I thought for sure it was just going to keep curving, and it never even started curving,” Worley said.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he went to Worley to try and rest the back-end bullpen arms.
“With the workload that we've had, we weren't going to use (Tony) Watson or (Mark) Melancon,” Hurdle said. “If you use (Arquimedes) Caminero, that's back-to-back nights for him. So Worley was fresh, could've given us some length.”
Worley said he was ready to pitch.
The Pirates suffered a rare loss when scoring four or more runs, falling to 28-6 when reaching the number.
The problem for Locke? His ERA (5.37) is greater than the Pirates' magic number of four runs, and it continues to climb.
Hurdle noted before Saturday's game that the first question always brought up by the media regarding a struggling starting pitcher: “Is he going to pitch again?”
The question will continue to follow Locke after uneven performances like the left-hander's effort Saturday. He was taken off the hook by Gregory Polanco's two-run single in the eighth inning that tied the score at 4-4.
After Locke was roughed up in his previous start in San Diego, Hurdle was quick to tell him behind closed doors that he would pitch again. But how many more promises will Locke receive?
“I wouldn't say there's added pressure, but I would tell you it's definitely in the back of your head,” said Locke, who felt he improved with an extra day's rest between starts.
Hurdle continued to show confidence in Locke, allowing the left-hander to face the right-handed Cameron Maybin in the seventh with a runner in scoring position. Maybin lined Locke's 95th pitch of the night into center field to score Bethancourt and give the Braves a 4-2 lead.
Hurdle then appeared from the third-base dugout and motioned toward the Pirates bullpen. He took the ball from Locke, who allowed four runs, seven hits and two walks in 6 1⁄3 innings.
“I thought we saw improvements in a number of different places,” Hurdle said of Locke. “The intent was better. He was aggressive through the zone.”
It will be tough for Locke to continue to claim ownership if he continues to allow loud contact like Chris Johnson's second-inning home run.
Locke struggled to control the run game as Maybin singled and stole second and came around to score on a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly to center that gave the Braves a 2-0 lead in the third. Jonny Gomes walked and stole second in the fourth and scored on a Bethancourt RBI single in the fourth to give the Braves a 3-2 lead.
The Pirates had little room for error against Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran.
Teheran did not walk a batter, struck out five and allowed just five hits in 7 1⁄3 innings. One of the hits was a two-run homer in the fourth off the bat of Andrew McCutchen, who continued his torrid offense. McCutchen is batting .399 over his past 28 games (40 for 101).
But Teheran allowed two hits in the seventh and gave way to one of the game's worst bullpens, and the Pirates took advantage.
Down by two runs with runners on second and third against reliever Jim Johnson in the eighth, Polanco continued his strong road trip by lining a single into right-center field to score Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer, tying the score at 4-4. Polanco's left knee has been wrapped in ice after the past two games, but he continues to hit and run well.
“Looks like the best rhythm he's been in,” Hurdle said. “He's hitting with a lot of confidence.”