Duke might be done in rotation after latest dud

Pirates to discuss removing starter following 9-1 beating by Mets


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NEW YORK -- It was on these same grounds, at old Shea Stadium, that Zach Duke burst onto the national scene in late 2005 with a dominant performance that prompted one tabloid headline to dub him "Duke of New York."

Distant memories, indeed.

The Zach Duke who took the mound Tuesday night at Citi Field lacked the command, the confidence and ... well, pretty much everything that riveting rookie had: He was charged with eight runs, nine hits and two home runs over 3 1/3 innings as he and the Pirates were pummeled, 9-1, by the New York Mets.

And, as it turns out, this might be the place where his Pittsburgh starting career ends, as manager John Russell said afterward that the team will discuss removing Duke from the rotation.

"We'll consider what our options are," Russell said. "We'll talk about it more the next couple days."

Duke's past four starts have seen 20 runs over 14 2/3 innings, swelling the record to 7-14, which is tied with teammate Paul Maholm for third-most losses in Major League Baseball, and the ERA to 5.78, highest in the majors among pitchers with 140 or more innings.


Today

Game: Pirates vs. New York Mets, 7:10 p.m., Citi Field.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (7-14, 5.37) vs. RHP Jenrry Mejia (0-4, 4.91).

Key matchup: Mejia, who turns 20 in October, has given up 10 runs and 17 hits over nine innings in two starts since being added to New York's rotation.

Of note: The Pirates have at least one extra-base hit in 27 consecutive games, thanks to Pedro Ciriaco's ninth-inning triple Tuesday. Their longest such streak in 2009 was 32.

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That has done nothing to diminish the powerful indicators that management will not tender Duke a contract through arbitration this winter, allowing him to declare free agency. Duke is making $4.3 million, and the arbitration process almost always results in raises, in part because it emphasizes innings. Duke has 141 2/3, ranking a respectable 101st.

Russell has been terse of late when analyzing Duke's performances, in large part, apparently, because there is not much to analyze.

How did Duke pitch?

"Tough outing," Russell replied.

Anything other than a lack of control?

"That's the bottom line. He's not getting the ball where he wants, and it's getting him in trouble."

Any health issues or fatigue?

"No, because everything he does in between starts is really good. He just can't repeat it when he gets in the game."

Is it just the sinker or everything?

"You get hit like that, it's pretty much everything."

Duke was not much wordier, hands on hips and face frozen in disgust as he spoke at his stall.

How tough is this for him?

"It's tougher on the team," he replied. "Obviously, I haven't been good at all, and this team's been battling much too hard for me to do that to them. I have to find a way to be better, and I will."

Any health issues or fatigue?

"Stuff's there. I just have to figure out a way?"

Has he discussed any delivery issues with pitching coach Ray Searage?

"I'll have to look at tape and figure it out."

Any positives at all?

"I got my butt kicked. Tough to take positives from that."

This one saw Duke the victim of some awful defense in the early stages, with second baseman Neil Walker muffing a double-play bouncer, center fielder Andrew McCutchen failing to notice a runner sprinting from first to third on a single, and right fielder Ryan Doumit mishandling a double to allow a runner to score. Walker and Doumit were charged with errors.

But Duke made clear his pitching was not above the fray by giving up 400-foot-plus home runs -- there are few softies in this cavernous place -- in the third inning to Carlos Beltran and Nick Evans.

Two early singles and another run in the fourth, and Russell took the ball, just as he did in the second inning of Duke's previous start.

Russell was asked beforehand how much Duke's pitch-to-contact approach has been affected by a downgraded defense. Last season, Duke's best since that rookie run, the Pirates ranked No. 1 in the majors in fielding percentage, and they currently are 27th of 30 teams.

"I think that's important for anybody," Russell replied. "I also think you see that, when you pitch really well, the defense plays really well. The guys aren't on the field as long, there aren't as many tough plays because there aren't as many hard-hit balls. Zach last year was more efficient."

If the Pirates' defense sinks further, it could give them quite the trifecta, in that their starting pitching and offense already rank last in most categories.

The offense continued to be nearly nonexistent, with a second consecutive shutout avoided in the ninth when Pedro Ciriaco tripled and scored on a groundout. New York knuckleballer R.A. Dickey pitched a five-hitter in going the distance.

Dickey had only four strikeouts, but ...

"It wasn't any fun trying to square up on him," right fielder Brandon Moss said after grounding out twice as a late substitute. "It had a lot of late movement, dance a little up or down, sometimes in ... hey, even he probably doesn't know where it's going."

Before Ciriaco's icebreaker, the Pirates had been blanked in 18 consecutive innings and, going back to the weekend in Cincinnati, had not scored against an opposing starter in 32 innings.

The franchise's worst season in a half-century is at 48-96, four losses shy of 100.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog . First Published September 15, 2010 4:00 AM


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