Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Return of Zach Duke

Zach Duke was taken in the 20th round of the 2001 amateur draft, a lefthanded pitcher out of Midway high school in Waco, Texas. He made his professional debut the next year in the Gulf Coast League posting an 8-1 record, a 1.95 ERA and a WHIP of 0.933. And just that quickly the Legend of Zach Duke was born.

That's pretty much how it went as he climbed through the system. The numbers, aside from a declining strikeout rate, were outstanding and in 2004 he led all minor leagues with a 1.46 ERA and was named the Pirates' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

On July 2, 2005 he made his major league debut against the Milwaukee Brewers, striking out nine and getting a no-decision in a 5-3 loss. From July 2 to July 21 he had a string of 22 consecutive scoreless innings and beat Gred Maddux and the Cubs 3-0. He was named National League Rookie of the Month, compiling an ERA of 0.87 which was the best among all starting pitchers in the major leagues. He became only the second Pirates rookie to win his first five decisions and only the fourth pitcher in the live ball era to have an ERA below 1.00 after his first six starts. He finished the year 8-2 and most hardcore Pirates fans can recite his 1.81 ERA from memory. The Legend had become tangible.

I watched Duke pitch live for the first time that year August 18 in Shea Stadium. He went 7 innings, gave up 2 hits and 0 runs. He walked 1 and struck out 5, throwing 103 pitches before being removed. The Pirates won the game 5-0 and Duke raised his record to 6-0. The Mets didn't get their first hit until the fifth inning and I remember laughing at Cliff Floyd as he struck out swinging two different times, completely fooled by Duke's offspeed stuff. His game score of 77 was his highest of the season and I walked out of the game thinking the Pirates had found their ace for the next five years.

In hindsight, that game may literally have been the apex of Zach Duke's Pirates career. From that point he compiled a record of 39-70 with the team. He had a solid 2009 even though he led the league in losses and he made the All-Star as an injury replacement. But after six seasons with the Pirates opposing batters were hitting were hitting .305/.351/.462 against him, and on November 19, 2010 the Bucs designated him for assignment. On November 24 he was traded to the Arizona Diamonbacks for a PTBNL that turned out to be reliever Cesar Valdez. The Diamondbacks avoided arbitration by signing Duke to a one-year deal for $3.5 million with a club option for 2012.

Tonight Zach Duke returns to PNC Park and will start against his former club and good friend Paul Maholm as the Pirates try to raise their record to 30-30 for the first time since 2005. I wasn't a big fan of the pitcher that Duke became and wasn't unhappy to see him moved. But at the same time I felt bad for a pitch-to-contact lefty generally pitching in front of a bad defensive team which is how things played out for Duke.

It all seems a bit serendipitous. Maybe Duke can go six strong before the Pirates get to the Snakes pen as they did last night. Either way this one will draw more than average interest as the Pirates try to get back to .500 against a former teammate.

1 comment:

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