PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Locke barely made the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation out of spring training, winning a battle with Kyle McPherson almost by default after McPherson struggled and a better option never materialized.
"You know when you break camp as the No. 5 guy, if something happens or if someone starts off hot down below you might be the guy that gets moved," Locke said. "It's kind of pitching to survive."
Something that's no longer an issue for him as the de facto ace for the injury ravaged Pirates.
The 25-year-old, who looks a couple days removed from high school, allowed two hits over seven innings as the Pirates silenced the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-0 on Friday night. Locke struck out five and walked one while needing just 75 pitches to get 21 outs.
Locke (6-1) barely resembled the guy who walked seven Chicago Cubs in his previous start, keeping the Dodgers off balance by working both sides of the plate and not being afraid of letting his defence do the rest as his ERA dropped to 2.19.
"He came to pitch," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "Just very, very efficient. He made pitches the entire seven innings."
Jason Grilli worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in the ninth for his National League-leading 24th save. Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run double in the third inning off Stephen Fife (1-2) and gave the Pirates some insurance when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Neil Walker in the ninth.
The story, however, remains the soft-spoken left-hander from New Hampshire. Locke lost his first game of the year, a 6-2 defeat in Los Angeles on April 10. He hasn't been beaten since and appears to be growing stronger each time he takes the hill, a welcome development for a starting rotation in tatters.
A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jeanmar Gomez all are on the disabled list, leaving Locke and veteran Francisco Liriano as the top-end starters for one of baseball's biggest first-half surprises.
If the spotlight is getting to Locke, it doesn't show.
"I wouldn't say (my) comfort level has changed at all," Locke said. "It's still uncomfortable. The confidence is definitely there. That's something I've gained into spring training and I've been able to carry it through the first half of the season so far."
Los Angeles didn't get a runner to second base while Locke was in the game, but had chances late to tie the game.
Pittsburgh reliever Mark Melancon struck out pinch-hitter Juan Uribe with runners in scoring position in the eighth. Yaisel Puig and Nick Punto hit consecutive singles off Grilli to start the ninth.
Grilli then retired Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Mark Ellis to remain a perfect 24 for 24 in save opportunities.
"He threw eight pitches in that at-bat," Gonzalez said. "When I see eight pitches, I shouldn't strike out. I needed to put a ball in play and I should have. That was bad hitting on my part."
Something that's going around for Los Angeles, which has dropped five of six and is now a season-low 10 games under .500 (28-38).
The Dodgers played without manager Don Mattingly, who served a one-game suspension for his role in the brawl with Arizona earlier in the week. Bench coach Trey Hillman filled in and watched his team get handcuffed by a player who is making $497,500. The average salary on the Dodgers is nearly $10 million.
"(Locke) commanded three pitches pretty well and he pitched in a lot," Hillman said. "The fastball and the changeup were good and he kept us honest with the breaking ball all night."
McCutchen gave the Pirates all the offence they would need when he doubled to the corner in right field in the third, scoring Alex Presley and Russell Martin. Fife, making just his fourth start of the season, settled down and escaped without further damage when McCutchen was gunned down at home trying to score on a ground ball and Clint Barmes flew out to left with the bases loaded later in the inning.
Fife gave up six hits in five innings, walking three and striking out four.
"It was a battle the whole time I was in there," Fife said. "I just couldn't get that easy inning."
That wasn't a problem for Locke, who felt fresh after heading to the dugout in the middle of the seventh. He didn't put up any fight to stay in the game, not with the one-two punch of Melancon and Grilli available.
It almost backfired. Andre Ethier singled with one out in the eighth and Jerry Hairston Jr. doubled to the gap in left-centre one batter later. Ethier held up at third rather than try to score, and it cost the Dodgers when pinch-hitter Juan Uribe struck out.
Pittsburgh added an insurance run when McCutchen singled leading off the bottom of the eighth and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Neil Walker.
Grilli made it stand up against the meat of Los Angeles' lineup.
NOTES: Locke singled off Fife in the third to end an 0-for-30 skid dating to last season ... Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis went 0 for 3 with 3 strikeouts in his return from the disabled list. He also threw out two would-be base stealers. Ellis missed 14 games with a strained oblique. To make room for Ellis, Los Angeles designated C Ramon Hernandez for assignment. Hernandez hit .208 with three homers and six RBIs in 17 games with the Dodgers ... The series continues on Saturday when rookie Brandon Cumpton makes his major league debut for the Pirates, replacing Burnett. Clayton Kershaw (5-4, 1.88 ERA) starts for Los Angeles ... Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell pitched two perfect innings in relief. Howell is appealing a two-game suspension for his role in the brawl with the Diamondbacks. Reliever Ronald Belisario sat out to serve his one-game suspension.