NEW YORK -- The best of the best gathered in the entrance to Citi Field, and Jeff Locke sat smack in the middle.
The open-air entryway to the ballpark bears the name "Jackie Robinson Rotunda." In 1949, Robinson was the best of the best. His .342 batting average and 37 stolen bases led the league and earned him most valuable player honors.
Seated next to Locke, Jason Grilli pointed to the walls of the rotunda, upon which inspirational words were engraved. Grilli singled out 'persistence' and 'determination.' They apply, in some form, to every player selected for the All-Star Game. They certainly apply to Grilli. They also hold true for Locke, who said that, when the season began, "I was probably making All-Star plans for vacation or something.
"I'm honored and I'm surprised I got selected," he said. "I'm not surprised at the success this season. I know what I'm capable of and what I'm not capable of. I think I'm finding out more and more every day what I'm capable of. It really is just taking one start, one positive thing, and making it roll into the next one."
Tightness in Locke's lower back prevented him from participating in the All-Star Game. Neither he nor the Pirates consider it serious. He is scheduled to start Sunday against the Reds in Cincinnati. Even though he could not pitch, he enjoyed himself as much as possible in the two-day whirlwind of events. This self-described homebody attended a get-together for ACES, his New York-based agency, went to meet Clayton Kershaw only to discover Kershaw knew who he was and gave a hat-brim acknowledgement to the 45,186 fans at Citi Field as he was introduced.
"My success, I guess you can't say surprises me," Locke said. "It doesn't surprise my teammates."
That starts with A.J. Burnett, Locke's de facto mentor in the clubhouse. Like a football coaching tree, Burnett dispenses information gleaned over the years, mostly from Roy Halladay, with a little Pat Hentgen -- "Don't expect to win if you don't go seven" -- thrown in.
Locke ran with and paid it forward.
"I remember Gerrit Cole made his first start for us and went out there and won," Locke said. "I shook his hand and said 'Good. Now it's expected every time out.' Everybody expects the best from each other every time we go out there. We definitely don't settle for less. It doesn't really have as much to do with me this season as it does my teammates and the kind of confidence they've instilled in me."
Locke doesn't have Burnett's knuckle-curve, Francisco Liriano's killer slider or Cole's triple-digit fastball. He has a two-seamer and a four-seamer and a curveball and a changeup and the ability to keep his opponents from hitting any of them on the screws. He said he is pitching to his strengths.
"The last season up here and the year before, I was throwing all four-seam fastballs," he said. "Now I'm selectively throwing four-seam fastballs and everything's two-seamer. Just getting a little bit more run on the ball, a little bit more movement."
Despite his All-Star status, Locke sounded like a man who understood the tenuous status of a major league pitcher. Which shows he has listened to Grilli.
"A.J. goes out and pitches seven innings, I promise you, I want to go 71/3," Locke said. "I want to give up one less hit, one less run. We compete with each other. That's how we stay sharp. We always test each other, we're always trying to get better because if you don't, that's how you get weak and get run out."
His second half will only get harder as teams have a 109-inning body of his work to study. Balls in play against him in the first half turned into hits 22.8 percent of the time, much lower than his career 25.5 percent rate. He stranded 83.3 percent of his first-half base runners, higher than his 78.4 percent career mark.
Locke's six strikeouts per nine innings in the first half mean those balls will continue to be put in play, and, if the balls-in-play average creeps toward his career numbers, so too will his strand rate. More hits, more runs.
"It's been a real special season so far," Locke said, "but, at the same time, there's that 'so far' aspect that I had to throw in there, too, because it is far from over."
Into the maelstrom goes Locke, starting Sunday at Great American Ball Park, against a tough Reds lineup, after who knows what will happen in the first two games of a series between teams who haven't been fond of each other of late. Persistence and determination, indeed.
NOTE -- The Pirates received the fifth pick in the second competitive balance round in the competitive balance lottery Wednesday. The Pirates will have an extra 2014 draft pick after the conclusion of the second round.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published July 18, 2013 4:00 AM