BRADENTON, Fla. -- Did left-hander Jeff Locke further his chances to land a spot in the Pirates' rotation by pitching in relief?
It certainly looked that way on Sunday, when Locke posted four scoreless innings in the middle of the Bucs' 11-9 loss to the New York Yankees.
The two-hit, one-walk performance was one of Locke's most effective of five spring outings, the other four having been starts.
"Well, we could start only one guy," manager Clint Hurdle said by way of explaining why Phil Irwin started the game on the mound and Locke started it in the bullpen. "And we wanted Phil to match up for the competition level [before subs overtook the Yanks' lineup]."
In his prior outing, Locke had been chased in the fourth by the Orioles, after allowing eight hits and two runs. But, remarkably, Hurdle said he did some things better in his last outing.
"He did have four three-ball counts [on Sunday]," said Hurdle. "As a staff, we've got to continue ramping up our first-pitch strikes. The last couple of games, we've pitched behind in the count more than we like to. [Jeff] is continuing to grow and learn."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.