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March 27. 2013 9:24PM

NH's Jeff Locke remains in big leagues as Pittsburgh starter


Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke throws in the first inning during a spring training game against the Red Sox at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., March 6. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

New Hampshire's Jeff Locke was named the fifth starter in Pittsburgh's pitching rotation Wednesday, but his performance on the mound will determine how long he remains in that spot throughout the season.

The Conway native, Kennett High graduate and two-time New Hampshire Union Leader high school player of the year is expected to make his season's debut on Sunday, April 7, in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

Locke on Wednesday told MLB.com, "This was going to be a great day, either way. I was going to find out where I'd open the season, and whether it was here or in Triple-A. Just knowing was going to help me get ready."

Locke has made five exhibition starts this spring and recorded a 3.38 ERA over 21 innings.

Locke, 25, finished each of the past two seasons with the Pirates, making 12 appearances (10 starts) and going 1-6 with a 5.82 ERA over 50 innings.
Based on Locke's major-league experience and a strong showing this spring, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington -- a native of Amherst N.H., who became Pittsburgh's GM in 2008 -- felt he was worthy of joining starters A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez in the five-man rotation.

Hurdle chose Locke over right-hander Kyle McPherson for the fifth spot.  McPherson was optioned back to Triple-A Indianapolis.

"No. 1, the rotation is the best since I've been here," said Hurdle manager of the Pirates since 2011. "And I've got to believe (it's) the best since (Huntington) has been here."

Of Locke, Hurdle said, "I like the growth, the biggest from anyone I've seen from last year. The fastball's got more life than you think, the breaking ball can be sharp and when his change-up arrives, this will be a guy with some weapons."

The organization is hungry for pitching, considering starters Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and Francisco Liriano will all start this season on the disabled list.

Locke is now one of three left-handers in the rotation, along with Rodriguez and Sanchez. His spot in the rotation is probably temporary, the return of Morton, Karstens and Liriano from the disabled list making likely a return to the minors, where he has labored for seven seasons since Atlanta selected him in the second round of the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft.

In a February interview with MLB.com, Locke sounded like he was ready to depart the minors for good.

"The first time around the big leagues, you're in shock and awe," he said. "The nervousness has been toned down a little bit now. I wouldn't say it's gone away entirely, but it's down a bit. The expectation is there and you know what to expect now, you know how to handle yourself much better. It's now time to start being a contributor as opposed to a survivor."

The 6-foot-1 southpaw pitched three seasons in the minors for the Braves before he was traded with Morton and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to Pittsburgh in June 2009 for outfielder Nate McLouth.

Locke has proven his worth to the Pirates. He was named the 2012 Organization Pitcher of the Year after posting a 10-5 record and a 2.48 ERA in 24 games with Triple-A Indianapolis.

He ended last season gaining his first major-league win, which coincidentally came against the Braves.

jhabib@unionleader.com


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