Duke outduels Santana, ends Pirates' slump
Starting pitcher Zach Duke congratulates Lastings Milledge after Milledge hit a home run against the Mets in the fifth inning Sunday at PNC Park.
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Jose Tabata called his mom.
Sunday's game, in a rare occasion, was broadcast back home in Venezuela. He knew she'd watch with keen interest. So he picked up his cell phone and dialed Tibasay Pereira: "I want to do something special for you."
Lastings Milledge called upon his will.
He sat out five of the previous six games. He failed to start in eight of the previous 11 games, after only twice missing as many back-to-back games the rest of his 160-game Pirates tenure. So maybe it wasn't by accident that he deposited the tying hit into the bullpen of his former employer. Nothing like taking it out on your former clubs. "The Mets and the Nats," Andrew McCutchen said.
Zach Duke called upon his location and pitching sequence and short-term memory.
• Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (1-10, 3.90) vs. RHP Kyle Lohse (1-5, 6.79).
• Key matchup: Ohlendorf vs. the scoreboard. He has done well lately on one side of it, holding foes in his past 10 starts to a 2.35 ERA. The Pirates' offensive side: 1.1 runs.
• Of note: This marks the first time since Sept. 26, 1999, that two pitchers with at least 10 season starts faced each other owning just one victory at this late juncture: Kansas City's Blake Stein (1-1 after 10 starts) vs. Detroit's Dave Borkowski (1-5 after 16).
And for one afternoon, against a foe one game over .500, after a five-game losing streak and amid a fetid 4-19 stretch, you could call these Pirates a winner.
They scored fewer than three runs for their sixth consecutive time and 10th in their past 11 games, but this time they found ways to win one: 2-1 against the New York Mets. In front of an appreciative 24,730 at PNC Park. Behind home runs from previously parched wells of power, Tabata and Milledge. Behind a Duke who out-dueled a king.
Johan Santana is a four-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young Award winner, "one of the best pitchers in the game, much less the National League," Pirates manager John Russell offered afterward. And Duke (6-12) beat him after four winless starts. Duke gave up five hits in 28 batters, this from the NL's second-losingest starter with a .322 opponents' batting average. Santana gave up four hits in the same amount of batters. Half of those hits off Santana were homers, by Tabata, who had two previously, and Milledge with just three -- none in a span of his past 103 at-bats.
"His changeup is the great equalizer," Duke said of the difference between these left-handers, one of whom has a contract worth $4.3 million and the other $137.5 million, one of whom topped the National League in losses last season and other topping the majors since 2004 in victories, strikeouts and ERA. And guess what pitch Tabata and Milledge clobbered? Changeups.
Milledge saw his on an 0-1 count two outs into the fifth inning. Two batters before, Pedro Alvarez singled to break up Santana's no-hit bid after four innings -- Alvarez's two singles were the other Pirates hits. Ryan Doumit followed the first Pirates hit with a double-play grounder. That brought up Milledge, who homered into the Mets' pen.
Milledge had six putouts in right field, including a ninth-inning job where he had to retreat to the warning track for Chris Carter's flyout. "Oh, that was routine," McCutchen sneered. But what with these 41-83 Pirates is routine? The last time it took them so long to record a 41st victory? Sept. 2, 1985, the year Milledge was born.
Tabata saw his Santana changeup on a 1-0 count two outs into the sixth. Santana went 81 plate appearances in PNC Park yielding just one homer, then in the space of five at-bats he gave up two. Tabata didn't exactly call it off his fellow Venezuelan, obviously the object of South American telecast interest. But he was swinging in anticipation of an oncoming changeup and hit that rare thing that some Pirates fans inexplicably expect from this rookie regularly.
"We're not worried that he's not going to have some power," Russell said of Tabata. "He's got too good of a swing. He's too quick. He's got strength. As he develops more, power will show up."
Mama called back after the game: " 'Wow, my son ... ,' " he recounted. " 'You told me before the game you'd do something. Not a home run. But something,' " she added of such a game-winner off Santana. "A homer is something unbelievable."
Then there was Duke. He resembled the kid who went 8-2, 1.81 ERA down the 2005 stretch. "It's about as good as I've felt" this season, he admitted, though it marked his fifth start permitting one earned run or fewer, his 12th (of 22) with two or fewer. "You can see it, it's wearing on him," closer Joel Hanrahan said of Duke's 4-12 stumble since a 2-0 start. Those three- or four-run innings that Russell mentioned, or those Pirates leads that get lost in the next half-inning, were noticeably absent Sunday.
"What the offense does doesn't affect my job," Duke said. "My job is to keep us in the game, keep it within reach. I was able to do that today. Thankfully we were able to get the win that we needed."
Evan Meek worked the eighth, and Hanrahan recorded his second save. Hanrahan said, "Once we had that lead, we felt pretty good about it." That in itself was something to call home about: It was their first lead in 46 innings.
First Published August 23, 2010 12:00 am