PITTSBURGH – Two months ago, Jeff Locke was an All-Star and one of baseball’s biggest surprises.
Now the Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander might be one of the team’s biggest question marks.
The Cincinnati Reds pounded Locke for five first-inning runs in an 11-3 rout Sunday that dropped the Pirates into a tie with Cincinnati for the NL wild-card lead.
Locke (10-7) was lifted before the second inning and fell to 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA in the second half.
The glue of the starting rotation in the spring and early summer, his availability for the postseason if the Pirates get there is in serious jeopardy.
“I didn’t come out of the gate sharp, that’s for sure,” Locke said. “I can’t tell you what the rest of the outing might have looked like. We made the decision to get me out of there.”
Manager Clint Hurdle said the team would re-evaluate Locke’s status on Monday. Locke’s next turn in the rotation would come on Saturday in Cincinnati, but an off day on Thursday gives Pittsburgh some flexibility heading into the final week of the regular season.
The Reds and Pirates each have magic numbers of two to close out Washington and clinch a playoff spot. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh trail NL Central leader St. Louis by 2 1-2 games, pending the Cardinals’ night game at Milwaukee.
While the Reds are surging after winning five of six, the Pirates are scuffling. Pittsburgh finished just 5-6 in their final homestand of a breakout season and head to Chicago for a three-game series with the Cubs hoping to re-establish some momentum before reconvening with the Reds at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Friday.
Neil Walker hit his 13th homer of the season, but the Pirates failed to create some breathing room between themselves and the Reds with just six games remaining.
“Today we dug ourselves a little bit of a hole early and they never let up, kept their foot on the gas pedal,” Walker said. “We have to continue to play good baseball here and things are going to go our way.”
Jay Bruce hit a three-run double and Todd Frazier followed with a homer that capped a five-run burst in the first inning. Bronson Arroyo (14-11) made it stand up, lasting five innings to win for the first time in nearly a month.
Cincinnati rookie outfielder Billy Hamilton kept creating havoc. Hamilton went 3 for 6 with double and two more stolen bases. A record-setting basestealer in the minors, he is 12 for 12 on swipe tries since his late-season promotion from Triple-A. Chris Heisey, batting behind Hamilton, went 3 for 5 with a double and two RBI as the Reds put the pressure on Pittsburgh from the outset.
“Those guys set up some big innings,” Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. “You need guys in your lineup to drive in runs but it’s just as important to have guys to get on base so they can be driven in.”
Cincinnati loaded the bases with one out against Locke in the first when Bruce doubled to the gap in left-center field to clear the bases. Frazier followed with his 18th homer, a two-run shot to the deepest part of PNC Park.
Cincinnati pushed its advantage to 7-0 in the second on an RBI double by Heisey and a sacrifice fly from Brandon Phillips off reliever Jeanmar Gomez.
Staked to such a huge cushion, Arroyo worked quickly if not exactly effectively. Walker hit his third homer in four games leading off the third and pinch-hitter Travis Snider did the same in the fifth.
Pittsburgh’s best chance to make it close came later in that inning when Walker’s double put runners in scoring position with no outs. Arroyo surrendered only a sacrifice fly by Justin Morneau that made it 7-3. The veteran right-hander gave up three runs on five hits in five innings, walking two and striking out three.
NOTES: Pirates C Russell Martin left the game in the fifth with soreness in his left knee ... Cincinnati pitchers struck out six to lift their season total to 1,249, a club record ... Baker said RHP Johnny Cueto will have a 100-pitch limit when he starts on Monday against the Mets. Cueto missed more than two months with a strained right lat before returning to pitch five scoreless innings last week against Houston ... Hurdle said Jason Grilli is back as the full-time closer. Grilli picked up his first save since July 21 when he recorded the final three outs of a 4-2 win over the Reds on Saturday night. Grilli missed more than six weeks with a strained right forearm ... A sellout crowd of 38,699 showed up for the final regular season game at PNC Park. The 23 sellouts this season are the second-highest total in the stadium’s 12-year history, as is the total attendance of 2.26 million.