BRADENTON, Fla. -- Zach Duke feels better. He looks better on the mound. He pitches better, to the point where it's reminiscent of -- dare anyone mention it -- that dazzling finish to 2005.
"So far in spring, he's looked very similar to the old Zach Duke," said Pirates third-base coach Tony Beasley, his manager in Hickory and Altoona a half-decade ago when this young Texan was going 43-17 and expeditiously through the minors en route to that 8-2, 1.81 ERA start with the Pirates he has yet to come close to duplicating.
"I don't know what he and Joe [Kerrigan, the pitching coach] have been doing, but it looks like it's working. He's pitching with confidence. He's playing around with his curveball -- he always had the ability to throw it and make it bite hard. He's pounding the strike zone with his fastball. He's showing good feel with all his pitches.
"That's what I saw in his past."
Not even Duke wants to set such runaway trains of thought as comparison and expectation on a collision course. But this left-hander, still young at 25 for another month from today, reported to spring training on a mission to prove himself. To prove he belonged in the starting rotation. To prove that there is more inside Zachary Thomas Duke than an 18-37 record and 4.83 ERA the past three seasons with the Pirates.
While friend and fellow three-year starter Tom Gorzelanny was demoted to Class AAA Indianapolis yesterday without yet being able to reconnect with his sterling past performance, Duke is trying to recapture a healthy measure of his former physical shape, pitching discipline, promise.
Yesterday, in his longest start this spring, he allowed five hits and two earned runs -- on solo homers -- to go with one walk and four strikeouts in an efficient 20 batters faced in five innings. He has walked just two batters and struck out nine in 142/3 innings to date. Opponents are batting .218. His spring training ERA is 2.45. His self-assuredness is considerably higher.
"I feel more comfortable and more confident than I have in a long time," Duke said, and he credited a new regimen since relocating to his native Clifton with his wife, Kristin. "Moving down to Texas has allowed me to step back, watch some videos, see what made me successful and what made me not so successful."
The film study was only one facet. He hired two personal trainers: One for his pitching arm and one for his body. He worked out more strenuously than ever before, finding a training buddy in Toronto closer B.J. Ryan at the TMI Sports Performance center in Arlington, Texas, where a bunch of Texas Rangers and NFL Cowboys labored.
"You know, I feel like I'm in the best shape I've been in a long time," he said. "My arm strength is very strong. The recovery in between starts is very quick; I recover so much easier. You see the difference."
A difference in body and mind, and on the mound -- where Kerrigan and Duke tweaked his delivery off the rubber.
The three solo homers among the 12 hits allowed so far barely bother him. Manager John Russell echoed Duke yesterday after slugging Delmon Young and light-hitting Matt Tolbert smacked one apiece -- followed immediately, it should be noted, by Duke strikeouts of Jason Kubel and Brendan Harris -- in a 4-3 Pirates victory yesterday.
"The great thing is, I didn't get myself in a hole. Before ... I would let somebody on base," Duke said. "Home runs happen. I've always been a believer that solo homers won't beat you."
"Yeah, [it's a] big improvement," Russell added, contrasting this to the Duke who went 5-14 last year. "More confident. He had a sense of urgency coming into camp, he wanted to show everybody that he was going to compete for this job. It's really carried over. One of the keys he's been working on is throwing inside to right-handers, and he's been very effective."
Even though it appears he and Ian Snell have secured starting jobs behind ace Paul Maholm, Duke yesterday wouldn't hear of it. "In my mind, I still haven't" won one, he said. "They haven't told me I have a spot.
"So far the plan is going accordingly. Haven't hit too many big bumps along the way yet. You never know what'll happen the next time. Just keep working ... and trying to continue in the direction we're headed."
Back in time, closer to 2005 perhaps?
Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published March 19, 2009 4:00 AM