There aren't many times when an All-Star pitcher gets optioned to the minor leagues in the same season.
But Jeff Locke earned that distinction this past week when the Pirates sent him to Class AA Altoona for a mental and physical break. He will be back with the Pirates Tuesday and should still be eligible to compete in the postseason.
It is a different tactic than the one the Pirates used last season with James McDonald, who pitched well enough to earn an All-Star spot in the first half before his season crumbled in the second.
Locke had a 2.15 ERA in the first half. He is sitting at 6.18 since the All-Star break.
"I'm not pitching that much differently," he said.
On some accounts, he's right.
Locke was a lucky pitcher in the first half of the season. A low strikeout rate and a high walk rate required Locke to strand a lot of batters to enjoy the success he experienced. A lot of that success was due to a low Batting Average on Balls In Play, which was .231 in the first half of the season.
The league average is .293, meaning Locke had a higher percentage of balls in play converted to outs than the rest of the league.
But his BABIP has skyrocketed in the second half to .418.
Part of that is luck. But part of it is Locke's inconsistency with his command, which has allowed hitters to get more solid contact against him.
Locke is no longer a secret, and teams have adjusted. He is being forced to throw more pitches, and his walk rate has spiked as a result.
Fatigue might also be a factor, and manager Clint Hurdle said that played a part in the team's decision to give Locke a break.
"At this point in time, Jeff got to the point where he felt fatigued," Hurdle said. "We felt we needed to give him a pause button. That's basically what we've done."
Locke dealt with a lower back injury in July that made him unavailable for the All-Star Game. He had to take some time away from lifting between starts, which had become part of his routine. He has since resumed a weight-training regimen, but he said it is modified.
Hurdle said Locke has been inconsistent in his delivery during these second-half struggles. His timing is off, and he sometimes rushes through his motions.
With McDonald last season, the Pirates didn't have an opportunity to send him to the minor leagues when his struggles got the best of him. McDonald was out of options at the time, and the team moved him to the bullpen
With Locke, the Pirates are hoping a different process produces different results.
Back to school for John Buck
The newest Pirates catcher, John Buck, has little more than one month to learn the team's pitching staff. And he will use experiences from his rookie season -- nine years ago -- to figure it out.
Buck was called up to the Kansas City Royals active roster late in 2004 and had to quickly acclimate himself to a pitching staff that included a 20-year-old Zack Greinke.
The Royals switched their starting rotation on a regular basis, complicating the process for Buck, who was 23 at the time.
Hurdle said that experience could pay dividends for Buck as he moves into the Pirates' backup catcher role.
In fact, Hurdle said even he could learn from Buck.
"He's got experience along these lines, which I'm looking forward to drawing upon," Hurdle said. "He has been moved around a couple of times. I want to get his insight. What's his learning curve? What ways has he been best served as quick as possible to pick up a staff?"
Starting catcher Russell Martin had the benefit of spring training -- and a winter of video study -- to familiarize himself with Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli and others on the staff. And he will play a big role in helping Buck learn.
"I should be able to get acclimated pretty easy," Buck said. "It'll definitely help with Russell here to give me the crash course."
Buck also will get some help from Michael McKenry, the Pirates' former backup catcher who underwent season-ending surgery last month to repair a torn meniscus. McKenry is with the Pirates when they are in Pittsburgh and should play a role in teaching Buck of the pitchers' tendencies.
And on Tuesday, the Pirates plan to recall catcher Tony Sanchez, who had been the team's backup until the Pirates acquired Buck in a trade with the New York Mets last week.
This upcoming week of baseball might seem strangely familiar. But the dates, stadiums and jersey colors should look a little different.
For a second consecutive week, the Pirates will play the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in three-game series. This week, the Pirates are on the road for all six games.
The Pirates have already secured a season series win against the Brewers, the first time they have been able to claim that since they went 9-6 against Milwaukee in 2006. Perhaps more than any other team, the Brewers have terrorized the Pirates in recent years.
Between 2007-12, the Pirates went 24-69 against the Brewers.
The series against the Cardinals is the final of the season between the two teams who are vying for the National League Central Division crown.
The week ahead
Schedule for the NL Central contenders (Monday-Sunday)
Mon-Wed: @ Brewers. Must face Gallardo again Tuesday.
Fri-Sun: @ Cardinals. Craig hits .452 with runners in scoring position.
Mon-Thu: @ Reds. St. Louis holds 10-5 edge in season series.
Fri-Sun: vs. Pirates. Last three meetings between the teams.
Mon-Thu: vs. Cardinals. Latos owns 2 of 5 wins vs. St. Louis.
Fri-Sun: vs. Dodgers. L.A. owns a 2.25 ERA since All-Star break.
First Published September 1, 2013 4:00 AM