Reporting Colin Dunlap
Much has been made of Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke’s precipitous slide in production since the All-Star Break.
The 25-year-old, who has started just 34 Major League games, earned All-Star status as he pitched himself to an 8-2 mark at the break with a 2.15 ERA.
Since then, however, the young left-hander has been front and center for the Jeff Locke Regression Tour as he takes a 9-4 record and 2.90 ERA into play this week.
He hasn’t pushed through the sixth inning in any of his last four starts and, on Saturday, realized one of his worst days. His line: 2.2 innings, 10 hits, 8 runs (all earned), 2 strikeouts and three walks as the Pirates fell to the Diamondbacks, 15-5.
A day in which Locke threw just 85 pitches — 52 for strikes — was not his finest hour.
But, are we that surprised?
This is Jeff Locke.
Jeff Locke is a guy who the Pirates, and you as fans, should be thrilled has 9-4 record and a sub-3.00 ERA. After all, he fought for a spot in the rotation out of Spring Training, just hoping to catch on as the No. 5 guy.
Jeff Locke is making less than $500,000 this season.
Know what the regression in Jeff Locke has done? It has muddied the true story, hidden the real elephant in the room — A.J. Burnett is the guy who needs to pitch better for these Pittsburgh Pirates.
At 36, Burnett is the unabashed clubhouse leader for this pitching staff and has a right arm that was brought here for moments like this, grabbed from the Yankees to pitch in the Pirates’ biggest games of consequence when (or if) they reached the pennant race before he retired.
Well, the Pirates are in a pennant race. And it’s time for Burnett to rise up, time to the fiery, tough-talker to start sticking it to opposing lineups.
Certainly, no one can take away the complete game, eight-hitter Burnett threw in a 5-1 win against the Rockies on Aug. 4, but such performances have been atypical as of late.
In his last two outings, Burnett has sustained a loss and a no-decision. He hasn’t worked into the seventh either time. More to the point, in his last time out — a no-decision against the Cardinals — he frittered away a 4-0 lead for a Pirates club that has been, well, allergic to scoring runs.
Opportunities like that for a guy of Burnett’s pedigree can’t be wasted.
Not in a pennant chase.
And not against a team the Pirates are tussling with in that pennant chase.
As Burnett carries a 5-8 record and an impressive 3.18 ERA, he hasn’t shown a penchant to work deep, or at least give the bullpen — taxed at this time of a year — the breather it needs.
In five of his last eight starts, Burnett hasn’t made it into the seventh, after doing so in five of six starts he made in May.
Is Burnett tiring? Maybe. Seems a natural that most pitchers will at this time of year.
All that said, this is a guy who has become the indisputable emotional leader and a definite top-of-the line starter for this club that has fought through this far and remains firmly in the pennant race.
As Burnett cashes that $16.5 million check this season ($8.5 being paid by the Yankees) being good down the stretch run isn’t good enough for him.
He was brought here to win games like this, to star in situations like the one the Pirates find themselves in right now.
There’s no other way to put it.
This isn’t Jeff Locke we are talking about — it is A.J. Burnett.
And it’s high time for him to pitch like it’s his time.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.