PITTSBURGH — Jeff Locke understands the entire premise is borderline preposterous.
Four months ago, the 25-year-old left-hander was simply hoping to escape spring training with a spot at the back end of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting rotation.
Now he’s fielding questions about whether he’d feel comfortable appearing in the All-Star game on one day’s rest.
“Every once in a while, there’s a little reality check,” Locke said.
The reality, for the moment, is that Locke is one of baseball’s biggest surprises. With one start remaining before jetting off to New York, Locke is 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA, second-best in the NL behind Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
To be honest, Locke is so surprised about his rapid ascension from question mark to steadying presence, he says he doesn’t really care. If he pitches on Tuesday night, great. If he spends a couple days stargazing in the Big Apple and giving his arm some time off, that’s just fine, too.
“My main focus is here, it will always be here,” Locke said while surrounded by reporters in the Pittsburgh clubhouse on Wednesday afternoon. “I’d like to go there and play some catch with some of those guys but that’s about it.”
In a game designed to showcase baseball’s household names, Locke may need to wear an ID tag just to get inside Citi Field.
With his mop-top of brown hair and slight build, Locke looks more like a high schooler than one of the bright lights of the season’s first half.
Yet don’t let the slender 6-foot, 185-pound frame or the kid-next-door grin fool you. Locke isn’t one for self-promotion, but he never doubted he could excel in the big leagues if given the opportunity.
“He’s always felt he’s got the skills,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s always had that confidence. He came in this year ready to hunt, ready to go earn something and get something and he’s backed that up with his performance.”
One that’s considerably outshined his higher profile teammates.
Locke’s locker inside the Pittsburgh clubhouse is sandwiched — or more technically, smushed — in between the franchise’s present and future. Current staff ace and unquestioned leader A.J. Burnett’s sprawling estate lies to the left. Rookie and former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole’s still relatively sparse digs are to the right.
In the middle sits the office of one of the National League’s most unlikely All-Stars, a quiet but self-assured son of New Hampshire who has baffled hitters through 18 starts with a mixture of pinpoint precision and guile.
“It’s nothing you didn’t think you couldn’t do,” Locke said. “You just hadn’t done it yet.”
While Burnett and Cole spend baseball’s midsummer break taking a breather before the second half, Locke will be in New York City rubbing elbows with the game’s elite, some of whom probably didn’t know his name when the season began.
They most certainly do now, heady territory for a former second-round pick considered a throw-in when Atlanta shipped Locke, Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez to the Pirates in 2009 for All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth.
He was picked as the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2012 after going 10-5 for Triple-A Indianapolis. Injuries at the big league level forced Pittsburgh to thrust Locke into the middle of the playoff race last September, with unremarkable results. The Pirates lost each of Locke’s first five starts during a late swoon that sent them tumbling to a 20th straight losing season.
Pittsburgh signed free agents Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez to fortify the rotation behind Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald.
When Locke arrived at spring training in Bradenton, Fla., in mid-February, the only thing he was assured of was a chance to prove himself.
Done and done.
Locke went 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA during the spring, easily beating out good friend Kyle McPherson for the fifth starter’s role. Still, it hardly assured Locke of a permanent spot.
With Liriano and Jeff Karstens starting the season on the disabled list but expected back at some point, Locke understood his window of opportunity was small.
After struggling in a 6-1 loss to the Dodgers in his season debut, Locke settled down and settled in. Working closely with catcher Russell Martin and hanging on Burnett’s every word, Locke started pitching more aggressively. Instead of picking at the strike zone, he pounded it.
Though his fastball rarely rises above 91 mph, Locke flummoxes hitters by working both sides of the plate and jettisoning any fear of attacking right-handed hitters. During one sequence against the Chicago Cubs on June 9, Locke struck out five Chicago right-handed batters looking.
“It’s really just trust, saying, ‘I’m going to throw this ball there and if it doesn’t go there, it doesn’t,” Locke said. “If it does, that was the plan.”
The plan for next week is to just try and enjoy the ride. He understands it might not come again. If NL manager Bruce Bochy never asks him to warm up, it’s hardly a big deal. Just being there is reward enough.
“Whether I pitch in it or not, it’s something I feel good about,” he said. “It’s something that’s attached to your name. You’re never going to take it away.”