Gem from Duke adds to special day at PNC

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You have no idea how meaningful Zach Duke's jewel of a start was yesterday at PNC Park. He didn't just pitch the Pirates to a 7-0 win against the Houston Astros with a complete-game, four-hitter that thrilled a big opening-day crowd on an afternoon when the home franchise had a beautiful ceremony honoring Pittsburgh's three fallen police heroes. He took a big step toward erasing one of the more dismal records in team history.

Do you believe that the forgettable Josh Fogg still is the winningest pitcher on the gorgeous North Side lawn, now in its ninth year of service?

With all of 20 victories?


Tomorrow

Game: Pirates (Ohlendorf 0-1) vs. Astros (Hampton 0-1), 7:05 p.m.

Where: PNC Park.

Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).


Well, Duke inched closer by getting his 19th win at the park, matching teammate Paul Maholm for second place on the dubious list.

The way Duke and Maholm are pitching, Fogg should have plenty of company by sundown Sunday.

Maholm's two solid starts this season came as no surprise, but Duke's two? Big surprise. The man looked like a batting-practice pitcher the past three seasons but looked like John Candelaria yesterday. You might remember it was Candy -- one of the great left-handers in Pirates history -- who threw the team's most recent home-opener shutout, 31 long years ago.

"You can tell it's all coming together for him," Pirates manager John Russell said of Duke, who will turn 26 on Sunday.

"A man on a mission," shortstop Jack Wilson added.

Sometimes, it's hard to decipher the excitable Wilson. It seemed like a good time to ask Duke for his interpretation of Wilson's observation.

"Jack's kind of been challenging me to not accept mediocrity," Duke said. "He wants me to strive for perfection each time out. He's tired of losing, as we all are. He knows that winning starts with each of us looking in the mirror and doing our jobs better."

So Duke is.

He was very good Wednesday in St. Louis, pitching 61/3 strong innings to get a win that seemed especially significant considering he went 1-6, 2-5 and 1-11 on the road in the previous three seasons. Then, he was lights-out yesterday.

"In and out, up and down, kept 'em off balance all day," Wilson gushed.

The Astros' only hit in the first six innings was Miguel Tejada's first-inning double, which bounced off center fielder Nate McLouth's glove. There were three hits late, but you never felt as if the Astros were going to score. Russell had no problem sending Duke back out for the ninth to finish his fourth complete game and third shutout.

"None," Duke said, obviously pleased with that show of support from the skipper.

Fourteen of the 27 outs Duke recorded were ground balls -- "That's when you know he's really on," Wilson said -- including his most impressive of the game. After the Pirates scored five times in the third inning to build a 6-0 lead, he went to 3-0 on the first guy he faced in the fourth, first baseman Lance Berkman. The last thing a pitcher wants to do there is walk someone. But Duke came back to get Berkman -- the Astros' best hitter -- on a bouncer to second baseman Freddy Sanchez. It was the only time Berkman put the ball in play; he struck out three times.

No wonder the sellout crowd of 38,411 was chanting "Duuuuuke" in the late innings.

"A special day for the city," Duke said, referring mostly to the moving pregame ceremony for the three Pittsburgh policemen -- Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo II -- who were killed in the line of duty April 4.

"To be able to win on a day like this, it's a great thing. To play as crisp, sharp and clean as we did in front of this kind of crowd ... I'm just glad people could see how we play. It's a good brand of baseball."

Especially the starting pitching.

This Duke start made it six good ones out of seven. The only bad one was Ian Snell's in St. Louis a week ago, and he bounced back with a nice performance in a tough 2-0 loss Sunday at Cincinnati. The Pirates probably deserve to be a little better than 4-3.

That must be some mirror in the clubhouse.

"Isn't it amazing how good we look when we pitch good?" Wilson asked.

The Pirates insist they aren't surprised, least of all by Duke's starts.

"He's a competitor," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "He has a little of that confidence, that cockiness, that you need. Look, we all know he's better than he's been the last two years."

Duke has been a lot better, actually.

So have the Pirates, so far.

There still are 155 games to go, but it's hard to imagine a better first week of the season.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.


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