CINCINNATI — The player most likely to regress on the Pirates’ roster entering Wednesday was not starter Jeff Locke, despite cries from the statistical community, but rather closer Jason Grilli.
After all, perfection is a difficult act to sustain.
And regress Grilli did in the ninth inning Wednesday at Great American Ball Park. Jay Bruce sent a Grilli fastball deep into the right field seats to tie the score at 1. It was Grilli’s first blown save of the season after he converted his first 25 opportunities. The Reds went on to win, 2-1, thanks to a Brandon Phillips walk-off single in the 13th inning off Vin Mazzaro.
The Pirates entered the day 37-0 when leading after eight innings this season.
They left the bases loaded twice, including in the sixth when Locke, a Kennett of Conway product, came to the plate with one out against Reds starter Bronson Arroyo. Locke, who had thrown 81 pitches, grounded out, and Starling Marte also failed to collect a key RBI hit.
While the decision by Hurdle to not pinch hit for Locke can be questioned, it’s also understandable why Hurdle stuck with the 25-year-old lefty.
Not only did Hurdle want to save his bullpen, but 72 games into the season, Locke trails only Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the National League with a 2.01 ERA.
“I want (Locke) to pitch after pitching four (relievers) out of the bullpen (Tuesday),” Hurdle said.
Locke threw seven scoreless innings against the Reds on Wednesday, allowing four hits. He walked three and struck out three.
Locke said what the skeptics don’t see is the change he’s made to throwing more two-seam fastballs. That extra movement — combined with Locke’s ability to paint both sides of the plate with his fastball — is what has helped him to limit opponents to a .231 batting average on balls in play.
Locke said his “bread-and-butter pitch” is the inside fastball, and given the beanball hostilities between the clubs, it was key for Locke to locate it, which he did Wednesday.
To work out of one of his few jams, Locke froze Todd Frazier with a 91 mph inside fastball in the fourth inning.
“He’s getting the ball in to both left- and right-handers,” Hurdle said. “He used his breaking ball well tonight. ... The two-seamers had good action. It was another very good outing.”
Locke did not hit a batter, but the Reds hit two more Pirates. Jordy Mercer was hit in the back by a 96 mph Alfredo Simon fastball in the eighth, and Russell Martin was plunked in the back by Arroyo’s 88 mph fastball in the fifth.
In the teams’ past nine meetings, 18 batters have been hit: 10 Reds and eight Pirates.
Locke’s curveball has added sharpness; his strikeouts have picked up in recent starts, with 31 in his last 36-2/3 innings.
Locke, who was acquired with Charlie Morton in the 2009 deal that sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta, credits veteran catcher Martin’s pitch selection and pitch sequencing for some of his improvement.
For example, most pitchers are careful and tentative when pitching to Reds slugger Joey Votto. But in the sixth inning, Martin had Locke challenge Votto with four straight fastballs located on the middle-inside portion of the strike zone. Votto grounded out to second.
The Pirates’ only offense came in the third inning. Marte led off with his second triple of the series. Marte scored when Arroyo failed to field Martin’s groundball.
The was all the scoring until Bruce’s homer.