There is one bit of good news about Jeff Locke's awful, abbreviated start against the Cincinnati Reds Sunday afternoon.
It was Locke's final start of the season for the Pirates, the final time we will have to watch him pitch this season.
Thank goodness for that.
It was OK that Locke got the start against the Reds. The alternatives weren't any better. Jeanmar Gomez hasn't been stretched out enough to start. Brandon Cumpton and Kris Johnson have little big-league experience and it would have been asking a lot to send one or the other to the mound. Beyond that, take a look around baseball. No. 5 starters tend to be pretty bad. The Pirates were extremely fortunate to get what they did out of Locke.
Locke was worse than bad again Sunday. He didn't give the Pirates a chance to win, getting in trouble with a couple of walks -- as usual -- before allowing five first-inning runs. With their 11-3 win, the Reds took two out of three games in the Pirates' final home series of the season, the most important series in PNC Park history. They also pulled even with the Pirates in the race for home-field edge in the National League wild-card game Oct. 1.
It was one of those lousy days at the ballpark. The Reds kept adding on after Locke was gone. Sadly, there weren't many people left in the top of the ninth inning when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, in a classy gesture, pulled star center fielder Andrew McCutchen from the game to get him one final big, well-deserved ovation. McCutchen is going to win the National League MVP award.
What's really sad is, despite Locke's lame performance, the Pirates still should have won the series. It's still hard to believe they blew that 5-2, ninth-inning lead Friday night. They had been 75-2 when leading after eight innings.
But that's the past.
It's time to look ahead to the final six games of the regular season, including three this weekend in Cincinnati.
There should be no Locke-type starts from the Pirates pitchers.
"We're in a good place," Hurdle said. "We're in the strongest position we could hope to be in. All of our guys are rolling. They've got some momentum going."
Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano will get the starts in a series in Chicago against the Cubs, beginning tonight. Hurdle wouldn't give up his rotation for the Cincinnati series, but A.J. Burnett, Morton and Cole are expected to start after an off day Thursday. That would leave Liriano to pitch in the wild-card game -- or the first game of the National League Division Series, should the Pirates catch and pass the St. Louis Cardinals to win the Central Division title, though that seems unlikely.
The Pirates probably won't go 6-0 this week. But, with those starters, would it be a huge surprise if they do?
Morton is coming off, arguably, the best start of his career. He stopped the San Diego Padres on one run and two hits in eight innings Wednesday night, striking out nine. It seemed wrong that he ended up with a no-decision when closer Mark Melancon blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth.
Cole has been the Pirates' most consistent, dominant pitcher down the stretch. He won their most important game of the season when he stopped a four-game losing streak with seven shutout innings on the road Sept. 9 against the Texas Rangers. In his past three starts, he has allowed just two earned runs and 12 hits in 20 innings, striking out 28.
Liriano has been the Pirates' best pitcher all season. He was in line to get a win against the Reds Friday night after allowing two runs and three hits in eight innings. The only troubling thing about that start is Liriano asked out of the game, saying he ran out of gas after 94 pitches. It's hard to imagine Burnett, for instance, giving up the ball in that situation with a 5-2 lead.
Heck, Burnett wasn't eager to give it up Saturday night after 107 pitches. He got the win against the Reds, allowing just two runs and four hits in seven innings with 12 strikeouts. It might have been his best start of the season, especially considering what was at stake.
It's no wonder Hurdle was upbeat after the tail-kicking Sunday from the Reds.
"You get knocked down, you get back up," he said.
Morton, Cole, Liriano and Burnett figure to give the Pirates a chance to do just that.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published September 23, 2013 4:00 AM