For Pirates fans, this story line probably sounds frustratingly familiar.
After a fantastic first half, a young Pirates pitcher continues to struggle in the second. And for Jeff Locke and the Pirates, it doesn't get much worse than his performance Saturday.
Locke allowed a career-high eight earned runs in a career-low 22/3 innings as the Diamondbacks drubbed the Pirates, 15-5, at PNC Park.
"Is today a little bit of a reality check, an eye-opener for me? Absolutely," Locke said. "But I think every outing that's not as good as you want it to be is exactly that."
The 15 runs and 20 hits allowed were the most by the Pirates since Sept. 18, 2011, when they gave up 15 runs and 23 hits to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Last season, it was James McDonald who pitched like a Cy Young candidate in the first half before his season crumbled in the second. Locke, who had a 2.15 ERA before the All-Star Game and a 5.58 ERA since, is hoping to avoid a similar fate.
"You take each individual into context, and this is really not the same scenario," manager Clint Hurdle said. "[Locke] pitched really effectively his last outing, and this one got away from him."
With the loss, the Pirates (72-50) now lead the St. Louis Cardinals, who won Saturday, by two games for first place in the National League Central Division.
The Pirates have lost six of their past eight games and Locke, who gave up 10 hits and walked three batters, has lost three of his past four decisions.
Locke (9-4) struggled to control his fastball, and his curveball and changeup didn't have the type of life he has enjoyed for most of the season.
"Short on stuff and short on command," Hurdle said. "That's a rough combination."
His success in the first half came in spite of a high walk rate, particularly due to his ability to strand runners. His walk rate has jumped in the second half, and his ability to escape has almost disappeared.
Locke walked two of the first four batters he faced and surrendered a single to another as Arizona loaded the bases with one out in the first. Wil Nieves drove in two runs with a softly hit double down the right-field line as the Diamondbacks (63-58) grabbed an early lead.
"I'm somebody that usually pitches better as the game progresses, [but I] didn't give myself an opportunity for the game to progress," Locke said.
After getting a couple of quick outs in the third, Locke surrendered seven consecutive hits, including a two-run single to opposing pitcher Trevor Cahill and a three-run home run to Martin Prado.
"This is a tough day all around," Locke said. "Obviously, I started it out being tough. But the game's throwing some adversity our way."
Hurdle earned sarcastic cheers when he finally pulled Locke from the game, and the left-hander heard a smattering of boos as he walked off the field.
The Pirates hit a couple of home runs and forced Arizona to use six pitchers. But an early deficit, and late-innings bullpen woes, proved too big to overcome.
The Diamondbacks had already scored eight runs by the time the Pirates' No. 8 hitter, Jordy Mercer, made his first plate appearance.
But when the Pirates went through their order for a second time, they found some offensive traction.
Starling Marte crushed a solo home run to spark a two-out rally in the third, and Pedro Alvarez followed a couple of singles with a mammoth three-run home run, his 30th of the season, that made it 8-4.
Cahill (4-10) made his first start since going on the disabled list July 1 with a right hip contusion and allowed four earned runs on seven hits in five innings to earn his first win since May 17.
After scoring again in the sixth, the Pirates loaded the bases to bring the potential go-ahead run to the plate with two outs. But after missing a potential bases-clearing double just a couple feet foul down the right-field line, Neil Walker struck out swinging on a slider in the dirt.
After chasing the pitch, Walker slammed his helmet to the ground in disgust.
The Diamondbacks added four runs in the eighth to regain some breathing room. In the ninth, Paul Goldschmidt hit his 30th home run of the season to extend their lead even further.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published August 18, 2013 12:15 AM