Duke's first start sends mixed signals
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ATLANTA -- The first three seasons of Zach Duke's major-league career each can be described by one word: Phenom; falter; failure.
Duke went from dazzling brilliance in 2005, when he was 8-2 with a 1.82 earned run average in 14 starts, to considerably less in 2006, when he was 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA; to probably the worst player in baseball in 2007, when he was little more than batting practice for National League hitters.
So it was with some degree of anticipation that the Pirates took in the 2008 debut of Duke last night at Turner Field against the Atlanta Braves. Would it be the Duke of 2007 or the Duke of 2005?
How about something in between, but closer to the good year than the bad one.
Duke pitched 5 2/3 innings in the Pirates' 4-3 win in 10 innings, and both he and manager John Russell were pleased with the performance.
The positive was the five scoreless innings he pitched as the Pirates staked him to a 2-0 lead. His fastball was in the low 90s, his command sure, his swagger evident. He was at his best when the Braves had runners on base.
"I felt great," said Duke, who walked one and struck out one. "The ball was coming out of my hand well. Based on the swings they were taking, I could tell the ball was doing what it was supposed to be doing."
He weakened in the sixth and allowed four hits as the Braves scored three times to take the lead. The final run was unearned when shortstop Jack Wilson muffed a two-out grounder.
"I probably extended him more than I should have," said Russell. "I wanted to give him a chance to win the game. But he battled. He did a great job."
Duke threw 116 pitches, and his velocity dropped into the high 80s by the sixth.
"That's more pitches than I had thrown all spring," he said. "I just wore down a little bit."
But it wasn't all good. There was an alarming aspect to the performance. He allowed 10 hits, an unsightly total for 5 2/3 inning, and it was mindful of 2007. For the night, the Braves batted .370 against Duke, a figure not usually associated with success. The regular and solid contact was a sign his troubles might not be in the past.
To put in perspective how bad Duke was in 2007, the Pirates asked him to do what is almost unheard of in baseball these days: take a pay cut. Considering that massively disappointing Ronny Paulino received a 5 percent pay hike, the fact that Duke took a $10,000 cut says much about how bad he was.
But nothing says it better than this: National League hitters, and that includes the pitchers, batted .359 against him. Since Matt Holliday won the batting championship with a .347 average, that means every batter Dukes faced -- pitchers included -- was a batting champion. Small wonder he was 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA in a season shortened by two months because of elbow problems.
Duke does not possess great stuff. He must win with sharp control and confidence. He figured to have that confidence last night based on spring training, when his ERA was 3.32, and with pitching coach Jeff Andrews, his minor-league guru, now with the Pirates. The 10 hits didn't seem to jolt him.
"Only a couple were hit real well," he said. "Give the Braves credit. They put the bat on the ball and they were falling in."
Andrews and Duke briefly were reunited last season when Duke was on a rehab assignment in Indianapolis. Andrews didn't like what he saw. A pitcher once filled with confidence had stopped believing.
"He was afraid to throw the ball," said Andrews. "He couldn't cut loose. He wanted to control everything. He wanted to massage the pitch."
Most of all, Duke wouldn't challenge hitters. Who could blame him? The pounding he took from National League hitters would savage any pitcher's confidence.
Unlike Jim Colborn, Duke's pitching coach in 2006-07, Andrews stresses the positive. He doesn't like to talk about the past two seasons because he wasn't here. Inadvertently, though, he might have suggested why those were bad years for Duke.
"When he's right mentally, I trust the entire game to him. He doesn't need a scouting report, he doesn't need anything. He just needs a pat on the back. He just needs the encouragement and not the doubts."
Duke will never be the pitcher he was in 2005. He doesn't have that kind of talent. Few pitchers do. Andrews doesn't want him to seek that level.
"I told him don't even expect to do that again. You're not that kind of pitcher. But I also told him you're not a pitcher with a 5.53 ERA, either."
As of today, his ERA is 3.18. The first start was a step in the right direction, but there remains a long way to go.
First Published April 4, 2008 12:00 am