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March 27, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: Locke is key to Pirates success this season

OPINION — Rounding the bases:

First Base: Last October this column opined that if lefthander Jeff Locke were in the starting rotation for the 2013 Pirates, you could kiss an above-.500 season goodbye.

Locke’s claim to shame is in defying a nearly 50-year-old club record for the most starts without a win at the beginning of a career.

Locke’s career 0-6 record  and over 6 ERA over two years in Pittsburgh in nine starts was followed by his first win in the Bucs’ 160th game, against Atlanta the day after the Braves had clinched the playoffs and did little more than go through the motions the night Locke pitched. He won, throwing 105 pitches and walking five in just six innings. The Bucs have one victory in Locke’s 12 career appearances.

His ho-hum spring has done nothing more than confirm the probability of that type of performance continuing.

And while we will prognosticate 2013’s final standings next week, if you want to know how the  Pirates will do, check out the 25-man roster when it’s announced in the next couple of days.

If Locke is on it, get ready for a 21st consecutive losing season.

That’s not to lay failure solely at Locke’s arm, but if that’s the best the organization can do, it’s in trouble.

Second Base: Of course, if the Pirates’ off-season plans had worked, the starting rotation would be A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Karstens.

But with Liriano still recovering from a broken non-pitching arm and Karstens lined up for yet another visit to the disabled list, it opens the door for two spots in the rotation. Kyle McPherson, Locke, Jeanmar Gomez, and Jonathan Sanchez appear to be the favorites, barring a trade or a decision to release Sanchez to be made between the column’s deadline and its publication in today’s Allied. In his past two starts, Sanchez has not allowed a run, giving up just three hits and one walk in eight innings while striking out seven.

Of course, whatever course is taken will no doubt be short-term, with Liriano on track to be game-ready in mid-May, Gerrit Cole to be called up in June, and Charlie Morton projected for a late-June return.

Third Base: So you can’t wait until Monday’s home opener to see the Bucs up close and personal…and free. The Bucs have announced that if Mother Nature plays along, the Sunday team workout from 1-3 p.m. will be free to all fans.

Free parking will also be available for fans in lots along Mazeroski Way and directly across from PNC Park on General Robinson Street. Fans will enter the ballpark through the left-field gates beginning at 12:30 p.m. Also, the Federal Street Grill concession area behind section 115 will be selling food during the workout.

With winter refusing to give it up for spring, the good news is that Sunday’s temperatures are predicted for the lower 50s under sunny skies.

It’s better than the long-range guesses for Monday’s opener, which calls for flurries, some rain, and a high in the mid-40s.

Talk about April fools!

Home Plate: So Jamie Dixon’s Pitt Panthers play their second-worst game of the year in the one-and-done Big East Tournament, an unfortunate harbinger of their worst game of the year in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Maybe it’s just questionable timing, but the tears hadn’t yet dried on the faces of us Pitt fans when Pitt announced that Dixon had been given a 10-year contract that will keep him at Pitt through the 2022-2023 season. In his first 10 seasons as head honcho, it is true that the Panthers have made the NCAA tournament nine times. But it is also true that the next big win from a Dixon-led team will be his first. While piling up a good overall win-lose record, Dixon’s teams have not made it to a Final Four and have played in just one Round of Eight.

Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for Allied News.

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