Pittsburgh Pirates starter Jeff Locke gives up four runs in the first inning against the Tigers at McKechnie Field Bradenton Florida.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — When Jeff Locke took the mound Wednesday, he test-drove a delivery the likes of which he hadn’t used in seven years.
After Locke joined the Pirates organization in June 2009 in a trade with the Atlanta Braves, he reported to high Class A Lynchburg. Before the trade, in 10 starts at Myrtle Beach, he was 1-4 with a 5.52 ERA and 26 walks in 45⅔ innings.
“I was 21 years old, new pitching coaches, new teammates, new team,” Locke said. “Anything that they were going to want to do with me, I was all aboard. I’d had some rough times in Atlanta as of late, I thought maybe a new windup would help me.”
Lynchburg’s pitching coach, Wally Whitehurst, suggested a change to Locke’s delivery: Stop bringing the hands over the head, and incorporate a turn toward first base, like Luis Tiant or Johnny Cueto, to add deception.
Locke tinkered with that delivery through the minors, through his promotion to the majors in 2011, through his All-Star first half in 2013 and through the inconsistency that followed. This spring, he is trying to eradicate it and return to the way he used to throw.
Locke received some reinforcement in 2012, when Erik Bedard joined the Pirates. Bedard, a fellow left-hander, also had a turn and some deception in his delivery. His presence in spring provided a template for Locke to follow.
But over the years, Locke’s release point with the turn became inconsistent. He struggled to pick up the catcher’s glove in the split second before releasing the ball.
“I’m picking up the target much sooner” now, Locke said. “I know I had the walk today, but that’s just Jeff trying to be a little too fine, like normal.”
Near the end of 2015, pitching coach Ray Searage suggested that Locke think about returning to his old delivery. They waited until the offseason — no use trying to fix mechanics on the fly in a playoff race — and worked on it together at Pirate City two or three times a week during the winter.
Locke now steps back and brings his hands over his head, then to his right knee, without much of a turn before going to the plate.
“I love it,” he said. “I know that the results said a different thing, but you feel so much better on the mound. You feel like you can throw the ball on both sides of the plate.”
The results did not match up: four runs, four hits and a walk in two innings in his start against the Detroit Tigers at McKechnie Field. But Locke threw only fastballs and changeups, and it was only March 2 — though, as Locke pointed out, it’s March 2 for the hitters, too.
“You have to look past the results, you have to look past all that stuff,” Locke said. “Even when Ray came to the mound, he’s like, ‘Hey, you got to keep trusting everything you’re doing.’ Because it’s easy for us to want to get away from that.”
Consistency from Locke would aid a Pirates rotation that lost A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ. Locke tied his career high with 30 starts last year, but had a 4.49 ERA. He had his stretches, including a five-start span in June and July where he had a 1.55 ERA, capped with eight scoreless innings July 4 against the Cleveland Indians. But he mixed bad outings in with the good, and did not complete six innings in 17 of his 30 starts.
Of note: The Pirates have put several men in motion on the bases during their scrimmage and first two games of Grapefruit League play, either on steals or hit-and-run attempts.
“When we have the opportunity and personnel out there, really in some situations, even some other different counts with some guys, you saw [Josh] Bell run today,” Hurdle said. “We’re looking for some action.”
Andrew McCutchen stole at least 20 bases in his first five major league seasons, but his steals dropped to 18 and 11 in the past two years. He was thrown out at second Wednesday.
“I was very encouraged with the fact that he got up and got running right away today,” Hurdle said. “He’s another guy I think we can look to, to have more action on the bases.”
News of the day: Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, whose Wolverines are having some of their spring practices at Bradenton’s IMG Academy, coached first base for the Tigers for a few innings Wednesday.
“I told him just to keep sending the guys to second, let our outfielders try to throw him out, because at the end of the play somebody would be happy,” Hurdle joked.
Hurdle, a Big Rapids, Mich., native and lifelong Wolverines fan, addressed the football team before the game.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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