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Locke draws huge crowd to Portland

Kennett grad goes five in Altoona Curve win over Sea Dogs

JEFF LOCKE warms up in the bullpen prior to his start at Portlandís Hadlock Field on Thursday, July 28. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
August 01, 2011
PORTLAND, Maine — As best as Jeff Locke can figure it, he was a week off.

When the Kennett grad returned to New England last year with his Altoona Curve teammates for a game against the Portland Sea Dogs, the lefty shined. He led his team to a win with a stellar pitching performance.

When he came back to Portland on Thursday, July 28, his stuff wasn't quite as on as it had been just a week earlier.

In his previous start, on July 23 against New Britain, Locke went a career-high eight innings, allowing only two hits and three runs and needing only 81 pitches to do so.

"It wasn't like last year when it was just magical," Locke said of his start against the Sea Dogs. "That was last week. I guess I was off by a week."

Locke made it through five innings against the Red Sox AA affiliate, giving up six hits and three runs (two earned), while walking just one and striking out four. When he left the game, Altoona and Portland were tied at three.

"I was very fortunate to have things go my way tonight," Locke said. "Even though I didn't have my best stuff, the team still prevailed."

Altoona scored twice in the seventh and twice in the eighth to pull away for a 7-4 win over the Sea Dogs.

"The fastball just wasn't there," Locke said, chalking the entire start up as a good learning experience.

"At this level, when the stuff's not there, you have to find a way to get through," he said. "I had to improvise. It just wasn't the kid of day to throw 95 by guys.

"It was a big learning moment for me tonight," Locke continued. "In the bullpen, things were coming out of my hand real good, but I got in the box and it felt like a parachute on it. It took an hour to get there."

Still, Locke got through.

Altoona's Brock Holt got a one-out base hit in the top of the first, but he was thrown out trying to steal. Locke responded with a strikeout and a walk in the bottom of the first inning, but got out of trouble by getting a line drive to left to end the inning.

Altoona took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning. Andrew Lambo led off with a double down the line in right and took third on a sacrifice groundout by Tony Sanchez. Lambo then scampered home on a base hit by Quincy Latimore to make it 1-0.

Portland responded quickly off of Locke in the bottom of the second. Catcher Mark Wagner lined a double off the wall in left field and moved up on a sacrifice bunt by Jon Hee. Oscar Tejeda followed with a base hit to tie the game. Locke then made a great pickoff move, cutting down Tejeda, but a double from Jeremy Hazelbaker and a base hit from Heiker Meneses gave Portland a 2-1 lead. Locke got the next batter to pop to second to end the inning.

Altoona came right back and tied the game for their pitcher. With one out, Holt doubled and one out later he scored on a base hit by Lambo to make it 2-2.

Locke surrendered his third run of the game in the bottom of the third inning, though it was of the unearned variety. After a leadoff double by Alex Hassan and a sacrifice fly, Locke got a big strikeout of Will Middlebrooks (who was the subject of many trade rumors over the course of the week) for the second out. However, a throwing error on a routine infield grounder resulted in Hassan scoring the go-ahead run for the 3-2 lead.

Altoona went in order in the top of the fourth, but Locke answered right back with a six-pitch bottom of the fourth, getting a pop up to second, a strikeout and a grounder to third for three quick outs.

Yunesky Sanchez led off the top of the fifth with an infield hit and a base hit off the right field wall by Anthony Norman put runners on the corners. One out later, Holt lined a base hit to tie the game, chasing Portland starter Michael Lee from the game. Eammon Portice came on and struck out the next two hitters to get out of trouble.

Locke struck out the first batter of the fifth then surrendered a double. A grounder moved the runner to third and a visit by the Altoona trainer to the mound likely caused some anxiety among the many Locke fans in the crowd.

"They saw something, they came out," Locke said after the game, noting there was nothing wrong. "I'm happy they did because they were looking out for me. They did the right thing."

Locke then got the next batter to ground back to the mound, ending his night.

Matt McSwain took over on the hill in the sixth and set Portland down in order and in the top of the seventh, Altoona jumped back out in front.

With one out, Norman reached on an error and Starling Marte reached on an infield hit. Holt walked to load the bases and Josh Rodriguez grounded to third. Middlebrooks fired to second for the force, but Norman came home with the go-ahead run. Wagner then tried to pick a runner off first and a throwing error by Hee at first allowed another run to come home for a 5-3 lead.

McSwain set Portland down in order again in the seventh and Tony Sanchez led off the top of the eighth with a walk and Matt Curry blasted a homer to center to up the lead to 7-3, ending the night for Portice and bringing Cesar Cabral from the bullpen. He quickly retired the next three hitters.

Bryan Morris took the hill for Altoona in the eighth and Hassan reached on an error to open the inning. Chih-Hsien Chang followed with a base hit, but Middlebrooks grounded into a 6-4-3 double play for two quick outs. Hassan did come home on the play to cut the lead to 7-4.

Altoona got a bunt hit from Marte to open the ninth, but a double play eliminated him from the bases. Rodriguez also beat out an infield hit, but he was stranded.

Portland made things interesting in the bottom of the ninth against Michael Dubee. With two outs, a walk by Hazelbaker and a base hit by Meneses brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Mitch Dening. Dening drove a fly ball deep to right centerfield, but it didn't have enough to get out and the Curve had the win.

"I had good plays behind me and was able to keep the ball on the ground," Locke said. He also went on to praise Sanchez, who got the start behind the plate.

"He cares about his pitching staff more than his offense," Locke said. "That's a rarity these days."

He noted that he would count on Sanchez to make a critical stop on a 3-2 curve ball in the dirt with the bases loaded at Yankee Stadium.

"He just gets them all back there," Locke said.

Locke also noted that when the two are working together, it's basically one unit, not two different people.

"It wasn't Tony Sanchez and Jeff Locke, it was one person," the Kennett graduate said. "We've been able to build a good relationship over the last three years."

Locke noted that Sanchez even takes the blame when someone gets a good piece of one of Locke's pitches.

"I take full responsibility for that, but he comes back and says, 'that was my fault,'" Locke said.

While not thrilled with his overall performance on the afternoon, Locke was psyched his team got the win against a team that is leading the Eastern League in hitting. Coming off taking two on the road from Reading, the Curve have been playing better baseball of late.

And for Locke, it was a chance to visit home again and see some familiar faces in the stands.

"It's always fun to come back to this area," he said. "The good thing is I went in game one, now in games two, three and four I can just sit back and take in the great New England air."

The trip to Portland marked the third time in just over a month that Locke had been back in New England. The Curve visited Manchester in late June to play the Fisher Cats. The lefty was also named as an Eastern League All-Star and played in the game in Manchester in early July.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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