Duke, LaRoche finally break out
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With the prospect of going 12-20 and putting themselves on a pace to lose 101 games, the Pirates did not flinch last night at PNC Park. They battered the San Francisco Giants something awful -- 14 hits and three home runs -- on their way to a 12-6 win. With this victory, the Pirates are on pace to lose only 96 times this season.
There were highlights galore, but none so astonishing as these two:
• A stellar performance from a starting pitcher.
• A home run from Adam LaRoche.
Who'd ever believe it?
Zach Duke, who was batting practice for National League hitters for much of 2006 and all of '07, won his first game of the season with a strong performance in front of another sparse crowd. There were 12,030 tickets sold for the game.
LaRoche, fresh off another awful April, not only homered in his second game in a row, but also hit this one off a left-handed pitcher, against whom he was batting .125.
Oh, yes, Nate McLouth homered twice, giving him nine for the season, and Xavier Nady drove in two runs, giving him 32 and, at least temporarily, the National League lead.
But from McLouth and Nady such exploits have become almost commonplace. They have been two of the best players in the National League this season. McLouth went into the game among the top 10 in the National League in doubles (first), runs (fifth), hits (eighth), RBIs (seventh), total bases (sixth), slugging percentage (seventh), batting average with runners in scoring position (sixth) and extra-base hits (third). Nady was in the top 10 in batting (eighth), doubles (sixth), hits (eighth), RBIs (second), multi-hit games (fifth) and batting average with runners in scoring position (eighth).
Too bad no other teammates remotely approached such accomplishments.
So it was about time others stepped up. It was particularly heartening, for those who have any hopes for the Pirates, that Duke and LaRoche were two to do so.
The Pirates' starting pitching has been monumentally ineffective. Remember the talk in spring training about them having the best rotation in the NL Central? Ha!. More like the worst. No, actually, the worst.
Pirates starters had the worst earned run average in the National League at a whopping 5.93, which explains why they were last in wins with six. Opponents were batting .312 against Pirates starters, worst in the league. Those same starters had allowed the most runs, the second-most hits and struck out the fewest.
Pirates starters have been so bad that they're making the relievers look good. The bullpen, considered a team strength by some, was 13th in the National League in ERA at 4.38 and 11th in batting average against at .257.
Enter Duke, 0-2 and being pummeled by NL hitting to the tune of a .320 batting average. On this night he was more reminiscent of the Duke of 2005, the pitcher who was 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA after a July call-up. He's not going to return to that form on a consistent basis. But since this was his second consecutive strong start -- two runs and five hits in seven innings in his last outing -- there is a glimmer of hope that Duke can become an effective starter.
"I do have a good rhythm going," he said. "Hopefully, I can stay at this level I'm at right now."
Duke left with one on and two out in the eighth. He allowed 8 hits, 3 earned runs, 3 walks and struck out 3. Sean Burnett, in his first major league appearance since 2004, only added to the bullpen's bad numbers by giving up a run-scoring single and a two-run homer.
LaRoche's maddeningly ineffective Aprils are well known. He just doesn't hit in the first month. His career average for April was .179. His career average for May is .279.
In his past three games, LaRoche is 6 for 12 with two homers and five RBIs.
It's about time.
"He's been swinging the bat well," said manager John Russell. "It's been a process. The last couple of weeks he's starting to lock in. He's not chasing pitches the way he was. He can really pick up our offense."
PNC Park remains the jewel along the Allegheny, but what's happening inside is becoming a bit of a sick joke.
For example, in the San Francisco ninth, with one out, the fans wildly applauded a throw from short left field by Nyjer Morgan that prevented a runner on third from tagging up. The fact the runner had no intention of trying to score was lost on the crowd. So was the fact the throw was about 10 feet off target.
But 15 years of losing will do that to a fan base.
First Published May 7, 2008 12:00 am