PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Jeff Locke opened the intense competition for spots in the Pirates' starting rotation Saturday in their Grapefruit League opener against the Rays, and he set the bar high, hurling three hitless innings to start a 3-2 victory at Charlotte Sports Park.
"You can look at it any way you want. There's a lot of talk about myself and Kyle [McPherson], and this guy and that guy," Locke said of the congestion of candidates. "Both of us could be there, neither of us could be there. I just want to be one of the guys."
Locke offered an assertive response to the offseason influx of potential starters -- Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez, Kris Johnson, Andrew Oliver and so on.
"It's like going to school," Locke said, with a light shrug of the shoulders. "You got new students every year rolling into your class. There's always going to be competition in this game, and that's what fuels you a little bit."
Manager Clint Hurdle obviously welcomes the competition and Locke's tone-setting start.
"I love it when all of them pitch well," Hurdle said. "You want it to be healthy competition from start to finish, you don't want it decided by attrition, or by nobody pitching well. So Jeff got it off to a good start."
Locke took an early, but big, step, keeping the Rays from even hitting a ball out of the infield in his three innings. Going three out of the chute is rare, but was a reflection of Locke's pre-Spring Training preparation and his efficiency the first two innings -- 23 pitches, 15 for strikes.
"I was scheduled for two, but three is fine. I just didn't want anybody else to come in and finish my inning," said Locke, who avoided the customary springtime hook by getting through the third on only nine more pitches.
"He was very efficient today, a very good outing for him," Hurdle said. "We're very encouraged that he was able to get out there for the third inning and finish it off."
Contrasts from last year encourage Bucs
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- "Just one game" was a common disclaimer following the Pirates' 3-2 victory against the Rays in Saturday's Grapefruit League opener. However, there were enough subtle contrasts to 2012 to underscore the fact it was, indeed, the beginning of a new year:
• The Bucs had two stolen bases without being caught (Starling Marte and Darren Ford) and lefty starter Jeff Locke picked off the only Rays runner who took off (Rich Thompson).
After converting 73-of-125 stolen-base attempts and letting the other guys run 154-for-173 last season, manager Clint Hurdle will take the small victory.
"Jeff mixed in his hold and side-step pretty efficiently," Hurdle said. "We're very encouraged with the rhythm and the pace, and the fact we're not letting runners on base slow things down."
• The Bucs scored their first run in the fourth inning, when Garrett Jones bounced a likely double-play ball to first baseman James Loney with runners at the corners and one out.
Loney stepped on the bag to retire Jones and threw to second, but Travis Snider put on the brakes and got into a rundown long enough to allow Marte to score from third.
"A situation that last year, I'm not sure would've been handled the same way," Hurdle said. "They know what's important to the manager and they felt the sting of not executing in certain areas last year."
• The Bucs ran out seven pitchers and would have blanked Tampa Bay if not for an eighth-inning fly ball to center field lost in the high sun by Ford. That run came off Vin Mazzaro, one of two hits charged against him. Chris Leroux also allowed two hits, then escaped a fourth-inning jam.
Bryan Morris, Mike Zagurski, Duke Welker and Brooks Brown each put up a hitless inning.
"I thought we pitched the ball very well, first through the ninth," Hurdle said. "That was good to see."
• Josh Harrison, playing second base, displayed his range to make a terrific play in the second inning Saturday against the Rays. He was playing catcher Jose Molina to pull the ball, and when Molina's grounder instead bounced to the right side, Harrison raced across to field it and throw the runner out.
• If you've ever seen NFL quarterbacks warm up on the sidelines -- they throw, someone else catches the return toss and flips it to them -- then you know Francisco Liriano's workout regimen. He keeps his left arm loose, but can't catch with a broken bone in his right arm.
• Rays manager Joe Maddon, who got a 48-save, 0.60-ERA season out of the previously-erratic Fernando Rodney last season, thinks new Pirates closer Jason Grilli has the same ingredients that caught Tampa Bay scouts' eyes before acquiring Rodney.
"They all felt this was the guy [we needed to get]," said Maddon. "[Rodney] had all the mechanical assets, was just a matter of correcting how he thought of himself. "
Rodney had to get over beating himself up after a bad outing, or even a bad pitch. Grilli, whose 90 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings were far superior to anything Rodney has ever posted, is as amnesiac as relievers come.
Quote to note
"It's crazy. I saw that and did a double-take. But there's nothing you can do about it, so this is the last time I'm going to talk about it."
-- Manager Clint Hurdle, on a Grapefruit League schedule that will have the National League Pirates play 28 of their 32 preseason games against American League teams
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.