When the Pittsburgh Pirates announced the starting pitchers for this week's series with the Atlanta Braves, the news that Jeff Locke would start tonight's game came as a surprise. Locke had been recently banished to the bullpen due to season-long ineffectiveness as a starter, and despite the occasional great game this season, he had earned his exile. Although there appeared to be a handful of better starter options, the opponent was, after all, the Braves, last in the major leagues in runs scored. If pressed, even the most intransigent pessimist might have acknowledged at least a non-zero chance that, if Locke didn't pitch one of his rare gems, he at least might be able to bluff his way through some innings and allow the Pirates offense and bullpen to earn a win against a reputedly inferior opponent.
Instead, fears were confirmed and Locke, with healthy contributions from the aforementioned offense and bullpen, blew an early lead and lost in humiliating fashion to the worst team in baseball.
The Pirates batted around in the first and scored four runs against Rob Whalen, a rookie making his major league debut. With Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte on base Matt Joyce, starting again tonight in place of the also-exiled Andrew McCutchen, crushed a three-run homer to center. The Pirates scored a fourth run off Whalen in a 36-pitch inning on a single, two walks, and a wild pitch.
After Locke retired the Braves easily in the bottom of the first, the Braves began a string of six run-scoring innings with a run in the second on a double by Nick Markakis.
The Pirates were well positioned to knock out Whalen in the third after leadoff walks to Joyce and David Freese and a 2-0 count on Jordy Mercer. But Mercer and Eric Fryer flew out weakly to center and Locke struck out.
The Braves continued pecking away at Locke and the Pirates lead, scoring one in the third and another in the fourth. It might have been worse--Locke escaped the third by means of a double play and the fourth on two popups with runners on second and third and one out after the lead had shrunk to 4-3.
With disaster clearly looming, Clint Hurdle nevertheless sent Locke out to pitch the fifth, enabling the Braves to take the lead for good. Did Locke's pitching the fifth have anything to do with the five-innings-for-a-"win" requirement, hoping to increment Locke's win total, or with the fact that Locke was due up second in the top of the sixth? Weren't there plenty of rested relievers who could have covered four or five innings tonight? Baffling. Freddie Freeman led off with a walk, and Matt Kemp hit a liner to Marte in center that bounced out of his glove on a sliding catch attempt, with Kemp moving to second on an ill-advised throw to third. A sacrifice fly by Markakis tied the game, and a single by Ender Inciarte brought in Kemp with the fifth Braves run.
They scored three more off Juan Nicasio in the sixth and seventh as the Pirates offense hibernated for the remainder of the game, managing only one baserunner after the third and ending the game with 15 straight outs. And young Whalen, who appeared so vulnerable through the first three, crossed the magic fifth-inning threshold with a lead and earned the win.
Locke gave up five runs, nine hits, and five doubles in his 4.1 innings. It would not be surprising to learn tomorrow that he has pitched his last game as a Pirate. Maybe he will have an opportunity to figure things out somewhere else. Meanwhile the Pirates, swept by a bad Brewers team in embarrassing fashion over the weekend, were dominated tonight and are in danger of losing a series to the hapless Braves tomorrow night. Playing bad teams affords no advantage to a contending team unless the contending team beats them. Ryan Vogelsong will be on the hill.