BRADENTON -- It may have been his first appearance of the spring.
But when Jeff Locke took to McKechnie Field’s mound Friday afternoon, things felt very familiar.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
A member of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 40-man roster this spring, Locke is back in Bradenton after spending his summer with the high Single-A Marauders.
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And he isn’t alone. Catcher Tony Sanchez and pitcher Bryan Morris are in camp, as well.
They’re all just former Marauders hoping to make an impression with the big club.
Locke did that last season. He went 9-3 with Bradenton before a July bump to Double-A Altoona, where he posted a 3-2 mark in 10 starts and helped the Curve win the Eastern League championship.
“That was the first promotion of my career, in season,” said Locke, who was acquired in June 2009 from the Atlanta Braves. “I got up there, and it was almost like my big leagues. ... I really, really, really enjoyed it up there.”
The Marauders’ former skipper, P.J. Forbes, has moved up the ladder as well. He got a promotion to Altoona during the offseason and has been replaced by former Pirate Carlos Garcia.
The first Marauder to make an impact was Morris, who started the first game in team history in April and was the first local player promoted to Altoona on May 16. After a sterling run in Bradenton -- he was 3-0 with a 0.60 ERA and received the most votes of any of the players named to the Florida State League’s All-Star Game -- Morris went 6-4 with a 4.25 ERA for the Curve.
“Everything was going well to start with,” he said. “I kind of hit a wall midway through the year because it was the first time I pitched all the way through the season. That was probably what hurt me the most -- not being able to push through that midseason wall. So when that happened, my mechanics kind of got off.”
He logged 1332/3 innings -- his most since the Los Angeles Dodgers made Morris their first pick of the 2006 draft. Consequently, last year was a good learning experience for the righty, who also was drafted by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in ’05.
“It’s all about throwing. Your arm’s got to be used to it,” said Morris, who is on the Pirates’ 40-man roster. “You can be in the best shape of everybody out here, but if you’ve never thrown more than 75 innings, it can be tough. But I got (133) under my belt, so we’re looking to push that to 160, 170. I would like to be a 200-inning guy in the big leagues. That’s what we’re working for.”
Sanchez was well on his way to Altoona last summer when he was hit by a pitch June 22 and suffered a broken jaw, ending his season.
He was set to be promoted two days later, but underwent season-ending surgery instead. Sanchez had his jaw wired shut for a month and after going three additional months without seeing live pitching, he returned to action with Mesa of the Arizona Fall League. He hit .206 in 18 games after batting .314 in 59 games with Bradenton.
“It was good to go out there and get some reps and see where I was at after an injury like that,” Sanchez said. “I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable nor was I in shape to hit, as far as being on time. ... Obviously I struggled out there, and that’s why I said it was a humbling experience. It was good for me to go out there and see what competition was out there for me.”
Following his stay out west, Sanchez, the Pirates’ first pick in 2009, went back home to Miami to get his arm and swing back into game shape.
He was back in Bradenton earlier this month for his second big-league camp. Similar to Morris, he said this year feels a bit different.
“I wouldn’t use the word comfortable, because I still have to earn my way and earn my respect around here,” said Sanchez, who hopes to begin the season in Altoona. “But I can definitely go around and catch my bullpens without saying, ‘Oh my God -- these are big leaguers.’ The awe factor has washed away a little bit. I still come out and work hard every day and appreciate the find that I get to catch bullpens next to (Ryan) Doumit and (Jason) Jaramillo. ... I appreciate that fact very much.”