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April 17, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: Buccos headed for 21st losing season in a row

OPINION — (last in a series)

IT’S ONE THING thing to be bad. It’s another to be bad, but think you’re good.

Case in point: 25-year-old lefthander Jeff Locke with a 2-7 record and a career 5.52 ERA in 14 games over three big-league seasons.

Before Locke’s 2013 debut against the Dodgers 11 days ago, he graded himself.

“This opportunity wasn't given to me because I had a good year in 2011 or last year,” he said. “I earned this. I put myself in position to be in this spot in the rotation. I feel ready. I've been preparing for this. It's time to go.”

“I earned this”? Are you kidding me?

He is the number five starter, who only even made the roster by default because Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens were on the disabled list and rookie Kyle McPherson choked his way off the team. Locke was a last-minute, no-other-choice who made the team five days before the season started.

Locke made 86 pitches in six innings. Dodger batters only swung and missed eight times. He did even worse in his second start last Saturday when the Reds swung and missed just twice in 87 pitches in just five innings. That’s about five percent of the time. When Locke makes his third start of the season in the upcoming series with Atlanta, his early stats will show a 1-1 record with a dozen hits and five walks and only three total strikeouts in 11 innings pitched.

“I earned this?”

And there are the Pirates’ problems.

Newcomer catcher Russell Martin told the Tribune-Review this during spring training: “Every team has got some live arms. But this is the first time I’ve seen so many live arms in a camp. I’m impressed.”

Maybe Martin forgot that he caught C.C. Sabathia (34 wins in two seasons), Hiroki Kuroda (16 wins last year), and reliever Mariano Rivera in New York after five seasons in Los Angeles with pitchers Brad Penny (16-4 in 2007), Chad Billingsley (39 wins in three seasons), and a developing Clayton Kershaw.

The reality is that the Bucs were counting on A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald to lead a starting staff along with Karstens and Liriano until Charlie Morton comes back and Gerrit Cole comes up in June. But no one knows how long Wandy will be out with his cranky hamstring or if McDonald is showing why the pitching-savvy Dodgers were so willing to give up on him.

The Bucs are not completely devoid of hope, but the team must figure out a way to hang around the .500 mark until July, when a healthy rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Cole, a grounded McDonald, and Karstens is able to give the team a chance.

Remember that baseball is a long season. For every fan willing to write them off after their 1-5 start, you’ll find another fan willing to believe after the Bucs won five of the next six to climb into second place.

But either set of six is just that: only 38 percent of an NFL season, but not even four percent of a major league baseball season.

Meanwhile, the bats will be led by Starling Marte (speed and power), Andrew McCutchen (you name it, he’ll do it), Neil Walker (14 homers in 2013), Garrett Jones (.315 with runners on base and .308 with runners in scoring position last year), and the exasperating Pedro Alvarez (30 homers and 85 RBIs, including seven games with at least four RBIs), who will look as bad as he has so far this season only to carry the team on his back for a couple of weeks.

The bullpen will be strong with Mark Melancon, who didn’t allow a stolen base in 45 innings pitched in Boston last year and Jason Grilli bettering Joel Hanrahan’s stats.

It won’t be enough to get over .500, but good enough for third in the weak NL Central.

Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for Allied News.

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