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Pirates' Locke keeping hitters off stride

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

June 25. 2014 9:25PM
Pittsburgh Pirates starter Jeff Locke (49) delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during a game earlier this month. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke always has loved to throw the changeup.

“It’s my favorite pitch,” Locke said. “But it’s never really resulted in that much success.”

Until this year, that is. Locke, of Conway, N.H. and a former New Hampshire Union Leader Player of the Year, is using his changeup more than ever, and it’s tying hitters in knots.

Tuesday, Locke kept the Tampa Bay Rays off balance by mixing his fastball and changeup effectively. The Pirates scored three runs in the third inning and held on for a 6-5 victory.

In the fifth inning, outfielder Starling Marte left the game after his face collided with second baseman Sean Rodriguez’s leg on a steal attempt. Marte seemed woozy as he was helped off the field by the athletic trainer.

The Pirates said Marte had concussion-like symptoms and was taken to a nearby hospital for a CT scan. There was no immediate word on whether he’ll be placed on the seven-day disabled list for concussions.

Locke (1-1) went 7 1/3 innings, allowed three runs on eight hits, walked two and struck out three. He left the game after serving up Evan Longoria’s two-run homer on a 1-1 fastball.

Using the same circle-change grip he has had for years, Locke is throwing the changeup more often this season — about 25 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. Last year, 16 percent of his pitches were changes.

“There is a slight tick up in usage, but the productivity is what’s really playing,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s speed-dialing the changeup — fastball in, changeup in. He’s been able to throw the two-seamer away and down, and he’s thrown the changeup off that. The fastball-changeup combo has played extremely well.”

There’s a simple reason for that. “It’s been effective because I’ve been able to get ahead (in the count),” Locke said. “When guys are trying to protect the plate and stay ready for the fastball, I come at them with the changeup. It comes out of my hand as a strike, then it kind of goes down. I see so many hitters go, ‘Aw, what am I swinging at?’ Out of the hand, it looks so good.”

Early in the game, changeups helped Locke get a few key outs. In the first inning, he used a change to get ahead 0-2 on Brandon Guyer, who took a fastball for a strikeout. Rodriguez led off the third, and Locke set him up with a fastball and a curve for strikes. Rodriguez struck out swinging at an 80 mph changeup. With two outs in the third, the Rays got back-to-back hits. Locke threw six pitches, including four changeups, to Ben Zobrist, who grounded into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.The Pirates took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Gregory Polanco walked, then stole second and went to third on catcher Jose Molina’s throwing error. Polanco scored on Andrew McCutchen’s grounder.

Pedro Alvarez walked, and Jordy Mercer singled to start the third. Both runners advanced on Polanco’s sacrifice bunt.

Marte stroked a first-pitch slider from right-hander Chris Archer (4-5) into right field for an RBI single. McCutchen’s single scored Mercer. Neil Walker’s sacrifice fly make it 4-0.

With two outs in the sixth, Ike Davis doubled to left-center. He scored on Josh Harrison’s single.

Russell Martin hit a solo homer in the eighth.

Red Sox/MLB Conway