(Opening image Jeff Locke; image credit post-gazette.)
In retrospect, picking the finale of the Pirates-Giants series to attend in person was a bad decision. Not only did it feature SP Charlie Morton attempting to get back in the saddle against one of the most consistently-dominant starters in the National League (SP Matt Cain), but it also featured some wonderfully incompetent team management on the part of skipper Clint Hurdle that quickly rendered any Pirates’ comeback useless.
Hurdle, looking confused; image credit Josh Taylor
Fast forward to the top of the 6th inning. Pittsburgh was down 4-0, after only managing 2 hits off of Main Cain, who looked far more in line with his 2012 season (16-5, 2.79 ERA) than 2013 (now 5-3, 4.70 ERA). Hurdle understandably shelved Morton after his first 5 innings of work on the rubber since 2012, and opted for chunky underperformer RP Mike Zagurski to start the 6th.
To start, Zagurski’s current presence on the team is probably less about his AAA Indianapolis performance (although it was good- 2.14 ERA, 37 K in 21 IP), and more about an opt-out clause the veteran lefty carried in his contract, allowing him to be a free agent had the Pirates not called him up to the active roster by a certain date. Heading into Thursday’s game, Zagurski’s ERA hovered near 8.00, which made it understandable that Hurdle would bring him in to start an inning with the bases empty, as opposed to a high-risk late-game situation with inherited runners.
The problem is that Hurdle refused to pull Zagurski at any point in the 6th, despite him quicky getting his teets ripped in epic fashion. We’ll let the inning recap tell the rest of the story:
Mike Zagurski pitching for Pittsburgh
M Zagurski relieved C Morton.
N Noonan reached on bunt single to second, N Noonan to second on throwing error by second baseman N Walker.
M Cain grounded out to third.
G Blanco singled to center, N Noonan scored.
B Crawford singled to center, G Blanco to second, G Blanco to third advancing on throw.
B Posey reached on infield single to shortstop, G Blanco scored, B Crawford to second.
H Pence homered to center (425 feet), B Crawford and B Posey scored.
B Belt doubled to left.
A Torres struck out swinging.
J Arias grounded out to second.
Being at the game in person afforded me a unique opportunity to watch the Pirates’ bullpen while all of this carnage was unfolding. Nobody. At no point during the inning did Hurdle make any effort to pull his worst reliever, despite giving up 6 hits and 5 runs, ballooning his season ERA to a belt-loosening 15.00. In fact, outside of RP Ryan Reid soft-tossing towards the end of the inning (he would pitch the 7th), Hurdle didn’t even have a single arm ready to take Zagurski’s place.
Why the Pirates’ manager would essentially make no attempt to keep his team in a game is beyond the scope of explanation. The Pirates had taken the first two games of the series, and many fans brought their brooms to the game in hopes of a momentum-building series sweep. It almost seemed like, with the 3-game series already “won”, Hurdle was content throwing the 3rd game to preserve some of his better bullpen arms.
Yet the Pirates’ skipper was far quicker to leap from his dugout seat in the top of the 9th, when Giants’ 2B Nick Noonan hit a controversial double that was initially ruled a home run by umpires. Hurdle was correct- the call was overturned via replay- but at that point, the Pirates were already down 9-0. All it really did was add 10 minutes to the ride home for the 1,000 or so fans that stayed until the bitter end. As I loudly yelled to Hurdle that, had he been so quick to pull Zagurski in the 6th, the Pirates might still be in the game, the PA system quickly began to blast music to drown out the word “bum”, and any other critiques the remaining loyalists had. After all, PNC Park was pretty quiet by that point.
Luckily, the Pirates rebounded in a big way the following night against another NL West opponent. SP Jeff Locke continued his phenomenal season, blanking the Los Angeles Dodgers through 7 frames of 2-hit ball. After relievers Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli worked themselves out of some heartbounding jams of their own, the Pirates notched their 40th win of the season in a 3-0 victory.
Locke-down; image credit AP
Locke’s gradual ascent through the system has been an adventure indeed. Initially acquired- along with Morton and the now-departed CF Gorkys Hernandez- as part of the controversial OF Nate McLouth trade in 2009 (a trade which admittedly, I hated for many years), Locke spent 4 years gradually working his way up through the Pirates’ minor league system, with 12 games of MLB cameos worked in along the way.
The 6’0″ lefty’s progress went largely unnoticed by most outside of the Pirates, yet some common themes emerged:
1. Despite his smaller stature, Jeff Locke was highly durable. He logged 127 IP or more for each of the last 5 minor league seasons.
2. Despite not having an overpowering arsenal, Jeff Locke always maintained a very solid K/9, striking out an average of 8.3 batters over his minor league career.
3. Locke gradually lowered his ERA as he ascended through the system, from a peak of 4.59 at High-A in 2009, down to 2.48 at AAA Indy in 2012, an accomplishment with garnered Locke Pittsburgh’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors.
Locke’s MLB K/9 has dropped to 6.6 through 14 starts this season, but the New Hampshire product has kept the ball down, worked efficiently, and owns an outstanding 6-1, 2.19 ERA, 166 ERA+ line to date. Former #1 pick Gerrit Cole’s MLB debut is likely to garner the most headlines this season, but Locke’s emergence as a bona fide MLB arm will help infuse an aging rotation with the youth it needs to succeed for years to come.
Thanks for reading.