BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Andrews, the Pirates' pitching coach, had been working on refining some elements to Zach Duke's delivery in recent days, from a higher leg kick to a more consistent release point to a steadier rhythm.
But the goal was far less mechanical than mental, as Andrews' message to Duke has been consistent all spring ...
More purpose to the pitches.
Yesterday, in the Pirates' 8-7 upending of the Toronto Blue Jays at McKechnie Field, it is safe to say Duke made a large leap in that direction: In three scoreless innings, he allowed one hit -- a Rod Barajas double -- walked none, struck out two and, most impressive, threw 27 of 36 pitches for strikes.
That included seven consecutive strikes out of the chute and, by the time he was done, a back-door curveball that froze Vernon Wells for strike three and a fastball he blew by Sal Fasano's bat for another.
"Duke was sharp," manager John Russell said. "You could really see the difference. The ball was down, with more life to it."
Which is to say there was oomph, zip and purpose all around, quite unlike Duke's spring debut Saturday against Cincinnati in which the Reds rang up five runs and five hits, including long home runs by Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn.
"It was like sitting in a rocking chair back there for me," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "His control was great with all four pitches, he was ahead in the count to everyone and ... hey, that's the Zach Duke I'm used to seeing. This should be a huge confidence boost for him."
That will be hard to read. Duke has kept a low profile this spring, not talking or joking much, apparently intense in his focus.
Still, a sigh of relief seemed somewhat palpable on this day.
"I made some good pitches today, that's for sure," Duke said. "It felt good. It felt very natural. I was in a good rhythm."
He raised his eyebrows.
"It felt like it should."
Andrews, true to his goal, sounded most appreciative of the intangibles.
He has been preaching to Duke, his former pupil in the Pirates' system, to set aside those golden but perhaps burdensome memories of 2005 -- when he was 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA as a 21-year-old -- just as much as those of the past two years, when he went a combined 13-23 with a 4.82 ERA and .341 opponents' batting average.
As Andrews told Duke once over the winter, "Nobody expects you to be a 1.81, but nobody expects a 5.81, either. A consistent middle ground would be just fantastic."
And that will be achieved, Andrews has further preached, by having some fun.
"I want Zach first of all to start enjoying pitching again. I want him to crave it," Andrews said. "All the mechanical and delivery issues, they're going to contribute to the comfort level. But there's nothing better than to see him like he was out there today, with that aggressiveness."
When Duke's three innings were finished with a 1-2-3, eight-pitch fifth, Andrews approached him in the dugout and, as he recalled, "I asked Zach, 'Do you want to go back out there?' He came back, 'I want to throw eight today.' To hear him say that ... that's the first step."
The next step, naturally, will be showing that yesterday, and not Saturday, will become the norm.
If Duke does that, he is a lock to retain his spot in the rotation.
If not ...
General manager Neal Huntington surprised some observers when, in December, he declared Duke one of the Pirates' five starters. But, as players began to convene in Pirate City, Huntington clarified to Duke that the spot was his ... to lose.
And now, since Grapefruit League action began last week, management has clearly displayed that another left-hander, waiver claim Phil Dumatrait, could take that spot should Duke falter.
"As we've told Zach and Ronny, those are their jobs to keep," Huntington said yesterday, also referring to catcher Ronny Paulino, who could be outdueled by Doumit. "That's still the case with Zach. If he goes out and does the things he's capable of, then we've got to find a different spot for Dumatrait. If Zach struggles or has a series of not-so-good outings, then, sure, it becomes an open situation."
"But again, the job is Zach's. We don't want to overreact to one early outing."
Duke maintained even in December that he would not assume a spot being handed to him, and that position has not changed.
"There are lots of guys nipping at my heels, and my job is the one that's up for taking," he said. "But I've prepared myself to pitch at the highest level I can, and I feel like I'm right on track."
He was on another track when he finished yesterday.
All pitchers are required to run a set number of laps on the outfield warning track after coming out of the game, with a conditioning coordinator accompanying them for pacing. Duke and his coordinator moved in lock step until the final 50 yards, when Duke went into a full sprint to pull away.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 7, 2008 5:00 AM