National League All-Star Jeff Locke takes major steps in minors

TOLEDO, Ohio — Left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke will make his third start of the season for Indianapolis tonight against Syracuse and he is hoping it takes him another step closer to returning to the Pirates.

Locke, who is coming off an oblique muscle injury that hindered him in spring training, is coming off a positive outing in his start Monday against Louisville. He pitched six innings, allowed eight hits and three runs, threw 99 pitches and was pain-free.

He has been pain-free in subsequent throwing sessions and is confident that he is back on track.

“I actually feel like I am at the end of a spring training, progress-wise,” Locke said earlier this week. “When you miss three weeks, that is a big chunk of time out of my actual spring training, so it was unfortunate that it happened when it did, but the injury was small. There was no tear, it was just a precautionary thing.”

Locke stressed that he is not on a rehabilitation assignment, that he is just another Class AAA player who is working hard for an opportunity to get called up to the major league club.

Locke has had success against major league hitters. He was the Pirates’ best starter in the first half of 2013, posting a 2.15 ERA after 18 starts. He was named to the National League roster for the All-Star Game.

“Everything that happened last year was an honor, being a part of the All-Star Game was special,” Locke said. “I think the key is it is a personal accolade that is rewarding for me and is something that, when I am having a tough day or getting down on myself, I can go back to it and look back at it and say, ‘At one point, I did do this and I can get back to that guy again.’ ”

A back injury slowed Locke, 26, just before the All-Star Game and he did not pitch as well for the rest of the season. The oblique injury prevented him from breaking spring camp with the Pirates.

Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said Locke is a major league talent who is biding his time until a spot opens up for him.

“What he did last year was not a fluke,” Treanor said. “He got behind in the spring because of the side issue he had so it is really just a matter of trying to get him stretched out and built up right now. He is getting better. He doesn’t want to be here and, you know, I don’t want him here.”

Treanor said Locke’s first start of the season (April 16) was just OK but he showed great improvement in his second start Monday. The fact that he threw 99 pitches is probably the most significant development to come out of that start.

“I expect to see more improvement in this next start [today],” Treanor said.

Locke said his time in Indianapolis has been important for him because he has a deeper appreciation for how tough it is to stay in the majors. He also recognizes that many good players toil in the minors and never get called up.

“I was there for the entire season,” Locke said. ‘That is where I want to be and I appreciate it a lot more when you aren’t there. But at the same time, it isn’t like I took it for granted when I was there. It is something where I want to get back. I want to be back in the room, back in my element with the guys.

“I think one thing about this team is we have a lot of talent here in this room but this is a lot like how it was up there in Pittsburgh. There aren’t a lot of egos, everybody is pulling for each other even though all of us are working to try and get to the next level.

“There is that team, that family, atmosphere here, too, and that reminds me a lot of the way things are with the Pirates.”

Locke said 2013 was a dream season, not just because he had success but because the team had a great run and did have a good atmosphere in the locker room.

“I don’t think anybody had a 94-win Pittsburgh Pirates team written down in the books before the season but that’s what we did as a team, and that made it all the more rewarding,” he said.

Paul Zeise:, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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