Tossing Up Zeros: The Pittsburgh Pirates Excel at Blanking Opponents

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COMMENTARY | Jeff Locke held the Houston Astros scoreless through seven innings Sunday, just long enough for Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli to come in and shut the door like they have so many times this season. It was a masterful performance for the young pup of the rotation, even if it was against the worst team in baseball. The feat marks the third time this season Locke has held opponents scoreless during an outing, a trend that Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers are accomplishing at a rapid rate so far.

The Pirates have already recorded six shutouts in 44 games played this season, a result of solid starting efforts and a dominant bullpen. Indeed, the team's six shutouts rank only one behind the league-leading seven held by both the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals, both first place teams.

Even the casual baseball fan knows that it's impossible to lose a game when the opponent doesn't score a single run. The Pirates have thus far racked up the shutouts, but the team is also excelling in other low-scoring games.

The team has played in 17 games in which it has held its opponents to two runs or less, and in those games they hold a 15-2 record. The only blemishes are games in which ace Clayton Kershaw beat the Pirates in a 1-0 contest on April 6 and when the Seattle Mariners beat the Pirates 2-1 during a game at home on May 8. It just so happened that Pirates' ace A.J. Burnett found himself on the losing end of both of those games.

The fact that the team has six shutouts, seven one-run games and four two-run games is surprising given that Pirates starters have had trouble going late into games. But it's not like all of these stellar pitching performances are coming against the Astros.

Two of the team's shutouts have come against the Cardinals, perhaps the best team in the National League. The Atlanta Braves were shutout once, held to one run once and held to two runs once, and that was during the team's torrid start to the season in late April. The Brewers also appear twice on this list, and any Pirates fan knows about that team's dominance of the Buccos.

How does this year's team match up last year's version of the Pirates? Through 44 games last year, the team held a 20-24 record and was 10-5 in games where they held opponents to two runs or less. The Bucs only had one shutout under their belts at this point, which was coincidentally also thrown by Burnett. If anything, it shows the Pirates are pitching close games at about the same rate, but are winning those games at a more frequent clip this year.

In addition, Locke's performance Sunday saw his earned run average drop to 2.73. He is now the third pitcher, along with Burnett and Jeanmar Gomez, to have earned run averages under three runs a game. It's quite an accomplishment that the team has held its opponents to two runs or less in almost half of its games played so far this year. And in having one of the toughest early-season schedules in Major League Baseball, it is something to be proud of.

Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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