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08/10/12 7:05 PM ET

Bucs shine on 'D' -- except for stopping steals

PITTSBURGH -- In most defensive categories, the Pirates rank near the middle of the pack in relation to other National League teams.

Two exceptions, though, are defensive efficiency rating (DER) -- the ratio of defensive outs recorded in defensive opportunities -- and stolen base percentage.

Pittsburgh's .707 DER trails only that of first-place Washington in the NL. But when it comes to throwing out basestealers, no team is worse than the Pirates, who have let 90.2 percent of opposing runners swipe bags safely.

Manager Clint Hurdle has liked what he's seen from the defense, especially in the middle of the field, where Clint Barmes has played the majority of the club's games at shortstop and Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen have been mainstays at second base and center field, respectively.

"From the field part of it, behind the pitcher, we've been very strong up the middle," Hurdle said on Friday. "I do think that when you look at building something special, you've got to be rock solid up the middle."

McCutchen's .996 fielding percentage ranks first among NL center fielders. Barmes and Walker both rank third in the league in fielding percentage at their positions. Barmes has gone 33 straight games without an error, and Walker has made only one in his last 59 games.

"From behind the plate, our game-calling, our blocking, our handling of the pitchers has been solid," Hurdle said. "We've got a glitch with throwing runners out. We know that. We don't have a perfect club. But we've been able to keep most of those people from scoring when they have advanced and taken bases."

The Pirates haven't been too hurt by opposing teams' success at stealing bases, and neither have the Nationals, who, curiously enough, rank just ahead of the Bucs in that category, allowing runners to be successful in 86.6 percent of their attempts.

Locke relieved after first relief appearance

PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Locke had gone up against big league hitters before, but never as a relief pitcher.

It was in that role that the 24-year-old lefty entered Thursday's game against Arizona, with two outs and a runner on second in the seventh inning. He brought the frame to a close by retiring Chris Johnson, the first of seven straight hitters to come up empty against the young pitcher.

Locke was perfect during his 2 1/3 innings, notching a strikeout and keeping the deficit from getting out of hand. The Pirates still lost, 6-3, but it wasn't because of Locke's effort.

"I liked what we saw today," manager Clint Hurdle said following Thursday's game. "[He had] very good composure on the mound. Mixed his pitches well. Kept the ball in the strike zone. Used all his pitches."

Locke was pleased with the way his first Major League appearance of 2012 went, too. Last year he made four starts with the Pirates and went 0-3 with a 6.48 ERA.

"The nervousness of, I guess, the first impression was kind of gone. I know it's a different role, relieving as opposed to starting," Locke said before Friday's series opener against San Diego. "Pitching is pitching, no matter whether you're starting or relieving. It's all the same game. Getting my feet wet last year definitely made it a little bit easier on me this time around."

Pirates are not taking Padres lightly

PITTSBURGH -- Fans who think that the Pirates get to play three easy games against a struggling team in the middle of their 11-game homestand might be in for a rude surprise.

Don't be fooled by San Diego's 49-64 record. The Padres have won four straight games and five of their last six. They're 13-2 in their last 15 games against the Pirates, and have won nine straight contests at PNC Park.

"This is a club that's got a little traction," manager Clint Hurdle said before Friday's series opener. "They just finished a pretty good homestand. They've been known to pitch and play defense. They've got some guys in the lineup that can hurt you."

San Diego is scheduled to start three right-handers during the weekend series: Edinson Volquez on Friday, Jason Marquis on Saturday and Ross Ohlendorf on Sunday.

Two of the Padres' notable hitters are Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin, who on Friday hit third and fourth, respectively, in the lineup. Third baseman Headley is batting .276 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs, and right fielder Quentin is hitting .268 with 12 long balls and 31 RBIs.

"We don't take anybody for granted. We're not in a position to," Hurdle said. "That is a thought that never crosses anybody's mind, [that] when they come in this clubhouse, we've got a layup tonight, because you don't."

Last word

"You can't disassociate yourself from the scoreboard. They're big, and they're out there, and there's enough dead time during the game where you can catch yourself glancing at them." -- Clint Hurdle, on monitoring other games

Worth noting

• Reliever Juan Cruz made his second rehab appearance at Double-A Altoona on Thursday, throwing a scoreless inning and striking out one. He threw 13 pitches.

"He had a good outing last night," manager Clint Hurdle said on Friday. "He did throw his breaking ball, his changeup, fastball. Velocity was increased, 93 to 95 [mph]. It was another good step forward for him."

• Two more home runs at PNC Park will give the Pirates 800 at the stadium, which opened in 2001.

• Pittsburgh's 2.56 home ERA is the lowest in the Major Leagues. The Pirates also lead baseball in saves, with 41.

Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.