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September 18. 2013 9:39PM

Conway's Locke goes from All-Star to a playoff question mark

PITTSBURGH — Conway’s Jeff Locke was a Major League Baseball All-Star in July, but if the Pirates advance beyond a wild-card game, he seems an unlikely candidate to be part of a playoff rotation.

Locke failed to produce a quality start for the seventh time in eight outings since Aug. 1 in a 5-2 loss to the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, the 12th annual Roberto Clemente Day established by Major League Baseball to honor the Pirates’ great.

The loss was costly as the Pirates (87-64) dropped a second consecutive game to the Padres (70-80), a series that was supposed to represent a final favorable stretch of schedule. The Pirates play only five more home games and have six games remaining against the Reds, who won Tuesday and are now only 1-1/2 games behind the Pirates for second place in the NL Central.The Pirates have been unable to solve their home woes against the Padres, who improved to 30-10 at PNC Park. And against a Padres team that was 28th in baseball in runs scored, Locke was unable to build upon his best second-half performance, which came in his previous outing.During a brief end-of-August demotion to Double-A, Locke took a physical break but not a mental one. Locke (10-6, 3.27 ERA) revisited everything from his mechanics to his routine between starts. Locke contends nothing had changed from when he was trailing only Clayton Kershaw in the National League ERA in the first half to now, when he is the owner of a 5.98 second-half ERA.

“Everything has been the same,” Locke said. “It’s no different than all the others.”

Locke said much of his second-half struggles stem from the problematic fact he is a pitcher without elite stuff, meaning he has to live on the edge of the strike zone. But Locke’s foremost problem Tuesday was that he caught too much of the plate. Locke said he struggled with fastball feel, and he left an 89-mph, two-seamer elevated and on the inside portion of the plate in the third. Jedd Gyorko crushed it for a three-run homer, giving the Padres a 3-0 lead.

Locke had success pitching inside to right-handed hitters in the first half but failed to get the pitch inside enough vs. Gyorko.

“There were some challenges establishing his fastball in, which is one of his staples,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Locke allowed too much damage — seven hits and four runs over five innings — as the Pirates’ bats were once again quieted by a Padres starter. A night after hard-throwing Andrew Cashner nearly threw a perfect game, soft-tossing Eric Stults allowed just two runs over five innings, and those two runs only scored because Padres right fielder Kyle Blanks slipped while trying to catch a routine Marlon Byrd fly ball in the fourth.

In his first game back, Starling Marte went 1 for 3.

“He let the bat go ... no complaints,” Hurdle said. “A good step forward for him.”


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