Let's revisit an interesting scenario that played out Wednesday afternoon at Blair County Ballpark.
Curve starter Jeff Locke was cruising entering the seventh inning, shutting out Harrisburg on one hit and holding a 2-0 lead. He retired the leadoff man in the seventh, then gave up a double and single to put runners at the corners.
Locke had thrown only 68 pitches (according to the official scorer; 64 on the box score), and the latter showed 50 were for strikes. He had been in control all day and still should have had plenty left in the tank to get out of the jam.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Jeff Locke didn’t get a chance to try and escape a jam Wednesday against Harrisburg.
Manager P.J. Forbes, though, decided to lift Locke, arguably the best pitcher on the team, in favor of reliever Tom Boleska. The Senators then tied the game as both of Boleska's inherited runners scored, thanks in large part to a goofy infield popup that dropped for a wind-aided hit.
Now, the big question was: Why did Forbes pull Locke? I already knew the answer when I asked - because it's something many minor league managers do - but wanted to confirm with Forbes.
"You're not gonna put him in position to take the loss the way he pitched the first six innings," Forbes said. "The worst he was gonna do was come out of there with a tie game."
Forbes adhered to one of the unwritten rules of baseball, one especially practiced with young pitchers in the minors. It's basically about a manager showing enough respect for his pitcher to get him out of a jam when he's already had a good day so he can feel good about the outing until his next start.
Locke even agreed that his manager made the right decision.
"I feel the same way he does," Locke said. "Playing for P.J. for parts of the last three years, I know the way he likes to manage. When he feels like a good starter puts in a good effort out there, he does not want to give that guy an opportunity to lose that game."
OK, but for the sake of argument: What about giving the pitcher a chance to maintain control over the outcome by keeping him in the game?
Had Locke been laboring, it would be a moot point. But at 68 (or 64) pitches and with his pinpoint control, there was every reason to believe he could have induced a double-play grounder to keep it 2-0, or minimized the damage and escaped with a 2-1 lead.
As things turned out, the two runners scored, the game was tied and Locke was charged with both runs. Had he stayed in, he had just as much of a chance to build more confidence by proving to himself that he can get out of that kind of trouble deep into a game.
"He'll get those opportunities, too," Forbes said. "We're 12 games in, we want him to feel good about what he's done. It's not about trust because I trust that guy. ... It's about making sure he understands, hey, you did your job, that's why we have guys down in the bullpen to pick you up."
Forbes didn't make a bad decision. He made a decision that his pitcher respects - that's the most important thing - and one the Pirates want him to make as a Double-A manager to help protect the psyche of a good pitching prospect.
Some may call it babying a pitcher, and it is to a degree. But that's how the Pirates have operated in the minor leagues the past few years, taking every possible precaution with their pitching prospects.
When you hear talk about the differences between developing players versus simply playing to win in the minors, think of Wednesday's scenario with Locke as a great example.