Locke begins starter competition in earnest

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Jeff Locke opened the intense competition for spots in the Pirates' starting rotation Saturday in their Grapefruit League opener against the Rays, and he set the bar high, hurling three hitless innings to start a 3-2 victory at Charlotte Sports Park.

"You can look at it any way you want. There's a lot of talk about myself and Kyle [McPherson], and this guy and that guy," Locke said of the congestion of candidates. "Both of us could be there, neither of us could be there. I just want to be one of the guys."

Locke offered an assertive response to the offseason influx of potential starters -- Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez, Kris Johnson, Andrew Oliver and so on.

"It's like going to school," Locke said, with a light shrug of the shoulders. "You got new students every year rolling into your class. There's always going to be competition in this game, and that's what fuels you a little bit."

Manager Clint Hurdle obviously welcomes the competition and Locke's tone-setting start.

"I love it when all of them pitch well," Hurdle said. "You want it to be healthy competition from start to finish, you don't want it decided by attrition, or by nobody pitching well. So Jeff got it off to a good start."

Locke took an early, but big, step, keeping the Rays from even hitting a ball out of the infield in his three innings. Going three out of the chute is rare, but was a reflection of Locke's pre-Spring Training preparation and his efficiency the first two innings -- 23 pitches, 15 for strikes.

"I was scheduled for two, but three is fine. I just didn't want anybody else to come in and finish my inning," said Locke, who avoided the customary springtime hook by getting through the third on only nine more pitches.

"He was very efficient today, a very good outing for him," Hurdle said. "We're very encouraged that he was able to get out there for the third inning and finish it off."