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April 30. 2013 11:09PM

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Locke making a name for himself in Pittsburgh

SEEMED like yesterday that Jeff Locke had a goal to play in the Eastern League All-Star Game for the Double-A Altoona Curve.

Today, as the hottest pitcher in the Pirates rotation, the short-term goal is to defeat Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals in a Saturday's 4:05 p.m. game televised on Fox.

The Kennett High of Conway product improved to 3-1 (2.83 ERA) after working seven scoreless innings at St. Louis on Sunday, extending his personal streak to 13 scoreless innings. Locke didn't solidify a spot in the starting rotation until the final week of spring training. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, a Milford native, is glad he made the decision to put the 25-year-old Locke on the 25-man roster.

"Jeff showed major-league quality pitches but most importantly was aggressive and showed confidence," said Huntington, asked about Locke's dominant outing against the Cardinals. "It was by far his best major-league outing, and it's one to build on as we move forward."

The first-place Pirates (15-11 entering Tuesday night) are off to another promising start, which has become a pattern the past three seasons. However, last year, the Bucs crumbled down the stretch and failed to reach the postseason despite leading the National League Central in July.

Locke, drafted by the Braves in 2006 after being named the New Hampshire Union Leader Player of the Year, made a steady rise through the minors and made his big-league debut with the Pirates at the end of the 2011 campaign. He appeared in eight games last season but hasn't been a key figure in the Pirates' rotation until now. Spring injures to Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens helped open the door for Locke, who owns a career record of 4-7 (4.74 ERA). In his past two starts, the lefty pounded the strike zone at the knees and used a sharp breaking ball for severals swings and misses. Locke fanned 10 batters and walked four in starts at Philadelphia and St. Louis.

His father, Alan, went to an April 13 Pirates game against the Reds but hasn't watch any of his son's game lately.

"He makes me nervous. When he pitches, I go to bed. We don't even have the (Major League Baseball) channel," said Alan, who recently retired after a 40-year career in vehicle reconditioning and body repair. "When I talked to him, I told him to keep the ball low and throw strikes. He hasn't established himself as a pitcher and the umpires still don't really know him. One umpire told him, 'You're a good pitcher, but you have to earn your stripes,'" Alan Locke said.

The Pirates have suffered through 20 consecutive losing seasons. Jeff Locke, the youngest member of the starting rotation, appears to be an important piece of the long-term solution in Pittsburgh.

"It's exciting what's going on with the Pirates. I want to be one of the guys who makes history or breaks history," Locke said last season.

kgray@unionleader.com.


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