This one, it seemed, made it official: Zach is back.
Want to know how?
Forget that Zach Duke outdueled Johan Santana, perhaps Major League Baseball's finest pitcher, in the Pirates' 3-1 throttling of the New York Mets before 10,459 last night at PNC Park.
Set aside, too, Duke's golden 2.62 ERA, now seventh-lowest in the National League.
Just listen to his responses afterward to the following questions ...
Did you relish the challenge?
"No doubt about it. You always want to see where you stack up against the best, and I liked how it turned out."
Did you know, really know, you were going to win?
And the climax ...
Is the Duke of 2005 back?
"It's been a long time coming, but, yeah, that's me out there. You can say that."
That was how Duke used to talk during that remarkable rookie year, one in which he once smothered the Mets so convincingly at Shea Stadium that a tabloid in their home city dubbed him "Duke of New York."
Be sure that, although the pitcher might be different in some ways than in 2005, the poise is not. Nothing has visibly fazed Duke all year, not a lack of support, not an occasional flashback to his subpar form and, quite obviously, not facing an elite opponent.
Duke won this terrific lefty-vs.-lefty matchup decisively by holding New York to one run and eight hits -- all singles -- over seven mostly silent innings. Santana, after a sizzling start, was chased by three runs and seven hits over six innings, including Jason Jaramillo's icebreaker of a home run in the fifth.
All that, plus ...
"You could tell Zach enjoyed it, pitching in that situation against Santana," Pirates manager John Russell said. "That's another sign of where his confidence is right now."
• Game: Pirates vs. New York Mets, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (5-5, 4.45) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (4-1, 3.88).
• Key matchup: In Pelfrey's lone career start against the Pirates -- seven scoreless innings in a 2-1 New York victory Aug. 15 -- Adam LaRoche went 3 for 3 against him.
• Of note: In the past two seasons, the Pirates' Delwyn Young has 20 pinch-hits. Only the Philadelphia Phillies' Greg Dobbs (26) and Atlanta Braves' Greg Norton (22) have more in that span.
"There's a lot of confidence," Duke said. "I feel good about all of my pitches, and I feel like I'm throwing every one of them with a purpose. I really didn't have my best stuff, but I was able to get the ball where I wanted and get good results, for the most part."
Jaramillo, his battery-mate, was more effusive.
"Zach was awesome," he said. "All his pitches were working, and he had a good rhythm, a good mix, and got his pitches to work when he needed it."
Best example of that came in the seventh: With the Pirates ahead, 3-1, the Mets had runners at the corners and two outs for leadoff man Luis Castillo. Duke's pitch repertoire, in order, was a sinker, changeup, fastball, sinker, fastball and a sinker for a meek groundout to third. Every pitch went directly toward Jaramillo's mitt, and every pitch -- as Duke put it -- had a purpose.
He improved to 6-4 after two hard-luck outings in which he held opponents to four total runs and went 0-1.
John Grabow and Matt Capps were perfect in the eighth and ninth, Capps recording his 12th save.
Offensively, this marked the second time in four days that the Pirates beat the National League's ERA leader, including Saturday against the Houston Astros' Wandy Rodriguez.
Santana was perfect through 3 1/3 and, the way the Mets were diving for balls behind him, it was evident that they were thinking something special might be afoot. But Freddy Sanchez's double in the fourth ended that and, the next inning, Jaramillo's home run -- a 2-1 fastball lifted deep into the left-field bleachers -- brought a 1-1 tie.
It was his first in the majors.
"I never faced Santana before, so I was just trying to put a good swing on the ball," Jaramillo said.
He would not be the last, as two more runs came in the sixth: Sanchez singled, advanced on a wild pitch and came around on Nate McLouth's double to right. Adam LaRoche followed with an RBI double to right of his own.
Santana, who fell to 7-3, pointed, as did others in the visiting clubhouse, to the Mets missing half their regular lineup, including All-Stars Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.
"We're trying to do the best we can with what we have," Santana said. "This is not the end of the world."
Pirates left fielder Nyjer Morgan was ejected in the fifth by first base umpire Tim McClelland for slamming his helmet into the ground in disagreement with McClelland's call that he was out on a 1-6-3 double play.
"I was safe," Morgan said. "He made the wrong call, plain and simple."
The Pirates have taken the first two of this four-game set.