SAN DIEGO -- Zach Duke heard the news he had been awaiting for three months: He will retake the mound as a starter in 2007.
Pirates manager Jim Tracy informed him yesterday afternoon that he will pitch Saturday against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. That will mark his first start since June 28, after which he was shut down by elbow tendinitis.
It also will mark, all concerned are hoping, the beginning of a return to prominence in 2008.
"We need him," Tracy said. "Believe me: We need Zach Duke."
That is difficult to dispute: Four starters are set in Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Matt Morris, but the fifth is very much unknown. And, given how few teams in Major League Baseball go five deep in the rotation, having such an asset would be invaluable.
None of the remaining candidates comes close to Duke's pedigree, given his remarkable rookie season of 2005 in which he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA. Since then, though, he has gone 13-22 with a 4.85 ERA, and few discuss Duke in the superlative terms anymore.
Some, no doubt, view his 2005 as a fluke.
"I take that personally. I really do," Duke said when the subject was raised. "I know I can get back to that level. Hey, I had an injury this year, and I tried to pitch through it. That was my fault, and it's not going to happen again. I know how I can pitch, and I believe in it. And I definitely feel like I can get back to it."
Duke also took exception to a view held by some in upper management that his elbow trouble this summer was the result of not caring for his shoulder in the offseason.
"I don't understand that," he said. "I followed all the programs, and I even stayed in Pittsburgh to work out with the Pirates' staff. I did everything they set up, and I came into the season ready to pitch. And I'll do the same next season."
Short paternity leaves?
Tracy demonstrated how seriously he is taking these final few games with his orders for reliever Salomon Torres and shortstop Jack Wilson to return to the team within two days of their wives giving birth.
Torres' wife, Belkis, gave birth to a boy -- Jordan -- yesterday in Pittsburgh after having a Caesarian section. Torres was told to fly cross-country to San Diego this afternoon in time for the final two games with the Padres.
"I'm being a good soldier," Torres said yesterday.
Wilson's wife, Julie, is having induced labor Friday for their third child. He was told to join the team Sunday in Chicago for the series finale with the Cubs. The Pirates are off the following day.
"I have a plane ticket for Saturday," Wilson said when asked how he will approach it. "If everything's all right on the home front, I should be there for Sunday's game."
Players generally get three days for paternity leave. Torres and Wilson were told the games are meaningful because the San Diego Padres and Cubs are contenders, and the Pirates owe it to the pennant races to field their best lineups.
Duke's return could mean John Van Benschoten will start again this season. Tracy yesterday included Van Benschoten -- who allowed three runs in five innings Monday -- in a category with Bryan Bullington in saying, "These guys are coming off surgeries, and we want them to feel good about what they've done."
The Pirates will use an all-southpaw rotation in Chicago, with Maholm, Duke and Gorzelanny. The Cubs are 16-22 against left-handed starters.
Rookie Steve Pearce, batting .304 since his call-up this month, was out of the lineup a third consecutive game. "We will get him out there," Tracy said. "Can it be every day, like it was when Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were hurt? No. But he'll play."