PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Ever since Jeff Locke was little, his dream was to be a Major League baseball player. That came true on September 10, 2011 against the Miami Marlins when the left-hander took the mound for the Pirates and allowed three runs over five innings. It took Locke 10 big league starts over parts of two seasons and a combined 67.2 frames before he was able to notch his first Major League win on October 1, 2012 against his former club, the Atlanta Braves, who drafted the southpaw out of high school in 2006 in the 2nd round.
But this spring Locke was able to check off another exciting moment in his professional career –making his first Opening Day roster.
“This is second to none,” Locke said. “This goes up there with the news of when I got called up for the first time, or when I got my first win. When [Pirates Manager] Clint [Hurdle] told me I was going to break camp as the fifth starter and be a part of this ball club to start the season, it’s obviously a really good feeling. It’s something I worked really hard for. It’s something that I expected out of myself.”
The 25-year-old Locke went into spring training battling for the fifth spot in the Pirates rotation. Locke posted a 5.50 ERA during his 2012 campaign, but finished strong with a six-inning performance, allowing just one run on two hits while striking out six, and carried that confidence with him to Bradenton, Florida.
Locke made six starts (seven appearances) and posted a 2.63 ERA. Two of those outings were scoreless, and the lefty didn’t allow more than three runs over any of his trips to the mound. Despite admitting that battling for a spot in the rotation with right-handers Kyle McPherson and Jeanmar Gomez was stressful, Locke didn’t let it show on the bump.
“Especially since it kind of came down to the last couple days of camp,” Locke said. “It’s a lot of friendly competition between myself and the other guys in there, but at the end of the day, everyone takes cares of their own business. Everyone pulls for each other and whatever decision the ball club seems to go, you support the other guys. I’m pretty confident that at some point that all the guys that competed for this spot here will be up at some point this year. It’s just how it always happens. Whoever they took would have been a good decision for them. I was just fortunate it was me.”
After his final outing of the spring –a six-scoreless performance against the New York Yankees – Locke had just found out that he was going to break camp with the club. But it wasn’t until after that start that he said he hadn’t felt like he had a really great outing.
“I feel like I didn’t do poorly in any of them, but none of them were really fantastic like the last one,” Locke said. “That was the day after they told me I was going to break with the club. To kind of come out and do that, I really felt a part of the team that day. I had a lot of confidence, and I still do. I’m just trying to carry everything from camp into the season.”
A big take away from the spring was two important keys –staying away from the big inning, and limiting the long ball. Both have hurt Locke in his time in the Majors. Locke allowed six homers over 34.1 innings with Pittsburgh last season. The lefty was able to not allow innings to spiral out of control, and escape and battle through jams in Grapefruit League action. He allowed just one home run over his 27.1 frames in Florida.
“Being consistent and being confident, doing what I need to do, it honestly brings in a little bit of a different mentality,” Locke said. “I know the long ball hurt me last year. It’s something that I haven’t necessarily tried to stay away from or anything out of the ordinary. Just hasn’t hurt me much in the spring. Hopefully you just roll with that luck again. You just got to keep executing pitches. I’ve had a great time throwing to Russell [Martin] this camp, and obviously [Michael] McKenry again, too. Either way you can’t go wrong there.”
Catcher Michael McKenry, who caught Locke both in spring as well as during the lefty’s time in the Majors over the past two season, said that Locke has really shown a lot of maturity from where he was last season, to now where he is now.
“Just maturity. He just grew up,” catcher Michael McKenry said on Locke’s growth. “He was able to locate more pitches throughout the count. Just made the necessary adjustments he needed to make from last year. He stayed away from the big inning. He came out almost every start and be flawless for three or four innings, and then just have that one inning where his stuff just wasn’t quite as good. He fought through that this spring and made a name for himself.”
“I think it’s just his mental game. I think he reads pitchers better. He makes adjustments on the fly a lot better. He doesn’t rely just on his stuff. He’s relying on his brain, too. He’s put a lot of trust into me and Rus. Just going out there every time and competing whether he has his good stuff or not.”
Not only has Locke grew up and grown as a pitcher, he also added some weight in the off-season as well. Standing at 6’0″, 185, Locke packed on some needed lbs to make him stronger.
“The length of the season, you’re always moving, it’s tough to eat healthy all the time, and you lose weight, it’s hot, then you gain in back in the off-season,” Locke said. “This year I’ve been able to keep it on. I feel stronger. I feel good. I feel very healthy.”
The first start for Locke in the 2013 season won’t come right away. With the off day on April 2, the Pirates don’t need a fifth starter until April 10 Arizona. In order to stay fresh, the southpaw will pitch in one game on Tuesday in Florida, then fly back to Pittsburgh the same night. Growing up in North Conway, New Hampshire, Locke has only pitched out of the Eastern time zone once, back in 2011 with the Pirates. He will get a second at Chase Field for his season debut.
“I’m getting excited for the opportunity,” Locke said. “A little bit of a layoff until my start. I just got to stay sharp and I’m excited to get going.”
“It’s a dream come true since I was a kid to be in this clubhouse on April 1st, compared to September 1st or any other day like that,” Locke said on his first Opening Day in the Majors. “This is what you work for. You look around, there is 25 of us and not 38 or 40 or however many in September. This is what you play for.”