Duke, pitching stay on tear in Pirates' 7-0 win

Four-hit shutout of Houston in home opener lowers staff ERA to 2.70

For one golden afternoon, the Pirates had it all.

From the pageantry of a home opener to Zach Duke's four-hit shutout to Freddy Sanchez's three-doubles assault leading a dogged offense to the overflow crowd of 38,411 that thoroughly embraced the whole scene, they humbled the Houston Astros, 7-0, yesterday at PNC Park with serious style points.

All of which likely led to one prominent question on the minds of many as they exited the gates: Was that real?

"Why not?" center fielder Nate McLouth replied when asked the same. "This was our seventh game, and we've had six quality starts. If you can get that over the course of the season, hey, why not? This is how you win: You pitch well. And that's all our guys are doing."


Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlenddorf (0-1, 3.00) vs. LHP Mike Hampton (0-1, 5.40).

Few could dispute either count.

Thanks to Duke's second gem in as many starts -- he fanned five, walked two and barely broke a sweat in improving to 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA -- the Pirates' staff ERA through seven games is 2.70, second-lowest in Major League Baseball. Only the San Diego Padres, who play in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, are lower at 2.57.

And, as McLouth indicated, the success is widespread: All four starters to date have recorded a quality start -- six innings or more, three or fewer runs -- with the exception of Ian Snell's rocky debut in St. Louis.

"We've gotten a lot of good pitching," manager John Russell said. "We swung the bats well today and played some good defense, and I believe we're going to be capable of doing well at both. But it all starts with the guy on the mound. He has to give us a chance."

Several players echoed that sentiment, expressing a view that the rather opportunistic offense to date -- highlighted by a .300 average with runners in scoring position -- is feeding off the pitching.

"All we ask of our starters is to give us the opportunity," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "That's what we're getting, and you're seeing the runs come."

Duke pointed out that it can work in the reverse, too.

"It felt like our whole lineup came out and put pressure on them the whole time," Duke said. "That's a nice feeling for a pitcher."

This marked just the third victory in the Pirates' past 16 home openers, the first since 2004. Most important for the present, it raised their record to 4-3, a rare peek above .500 at any point in any season.

And, regardless of which came first, pitching or offense, the offense surely did its part, with every player in the starting lineup -- including Duke -- producing at least one of the total of 14 hits.

The burst began early, when Sanchez's double off the fence in right-center -- umpires ruled fan interference -- was followed by a flyout that moved him to third and Ryan Doumit's two-out single.

Sanchez started a five -run rally in the third with another double, this down the third-base line. McLouth singled him home and, one batter later, LaRoche sent Brian Moehler's two-strike, 87-mph fastball just above the Clemente Wall for his second home run.

When Brandon Moss followed with a single off that same wall, Moehler was lifted because of a sprained right knee.

Tim Byrdak relieved and walked two batters before getting the second out. With bases still loaded, Nyjer Morgan's grounder up the middle was muffed by shortstop Miguel Tejada and skipped into center for a two-run single that made it 6-0.

Doumit homered, also his second and over the Clemente Wall, off Geoff Geary in the eighth.

The only suspense that remained was whether Duke would go the distance for the third time in his career, and Russell sent him out for the ninth despite a pitch count of 107. Twelve pitches and three groundouts later, Duke validated the decision while being serenaded with chants of "Duuuuuuuuke," few of which had been heard in these parts since his masterful rookie performance in 2005.

"A good feeling," Duke called it.

For most everyone, it seems.

"This is fun right now," Doumit said. "We're playing to the level that I know this team is capable. You couldn't ask for a better game, a better atmosphere. We heard the fans the whole game. We're looking forward to more of it, to be honest."

At least one member of the opposition shared that view of optimism for these Pirates.

"I think people are going to be surprised, and they're going to be very competitive this year," Houston first baseman Lance Berkman said of the Pirates. "A lot of it boils down to the starting pitching, and theirs is pretty young. If it can be consistent ... they have a balanced lineup, guys who give you trouble up and down it. If their pitchers keep them in the game, they're going to be tough."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog . First Published April 14, 2009 4:00 AM


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