Duke sets the bar high in opener
Pittsburgh (0-0) at Houston (0-0), 7:05 p.m. ET
When the regular season kicks off, Zach Duke will be seasoned, wise and ready. Pressure? He loves it. Expectations? He thrives on them.
Looking at the Pirates' Opening Day starter, it's hard to imagine the 23-year-old could get much tougher down the road. Duke has been setting the bar high for himself since Day 1 though, and a preseason full of mental and physical preparation will be showcased when he takes the mound in Houston on Monday.
The task at hand may be a bit imposing, as last year the Astros took 13 of 16 from the Pirates, including all six games played in Houston. But Duke's not only up to the challenge, he's demanding it.
"I think that if you don't have expectations, why are you even playing?" he said. "If people don't expect you to win, what kind of pride can you take in being a good baseball player?
"I want to be the guy that everyone looks to to turn things around. I'm glad I've been put into this position, and I'm very thankful for it."
Pittsburgh seemingly has put itself in a position to be competitive this season, at the very least. Its starting rotation now has at least a full big-league season under its belt, and the offseason of left-handed hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche can only help to boost the Pirates.
Duke, who grew up in Clifton, Texas, about four hours northwest of Houston, should have his hands full Sunday. The Astros send their ace, 29-year-old Roy Oswalt, to the mound to oppose him.
Oswalt is a two-time All-Star who, at 98-47, has yet to have a losing season in his six-year big-league career. He's been especially sharp against Pittsburgh in his career, limiting the Pirates to a .251 batting average in 19 games, and .197 team hitting in three starts against them in 2006.
The left-handed Duke ran into some problems against the Astros last year, allowing seven runs (five earned) in an August game at home, and three runs on two homers April 2. In fact, Duke is winless against Houston in four career tries (0-3), but he aims to change that this year.
"This is a very intelligent kid that will take information and learn from the information he's given, but is also very good at learning by observation also," said Pirates manager Jim Tracy, of Duke. "I think there were times last year where he got a little bit of an education after the novelty of him being in the big leagues was over and the realization that, 'Hey, people adjust to you, and as a result of that you have to be willing and ready to make an additional adjustment that will help make and keep giving you an edge.'
"I think that's the biggest lesson he learned last year, and as a result of that, he brought that to Spring Training, and he's implementing it, and I don't have to describe the kind of success he's had this spring."
|Pirates probable lineup|
HOU: RHP Roy Oswalt, 15-8, 2.98 ERA in 2006
Oswalt holds a career 2.65 ERA at Minute Maid Park over 91 games.
PIT: LHP Zach Duke, 10-15, 4.47 ERA in 2006
Duke is 5-11 with a 3.89 career ERA during road games.
Player to watch
Craig Biggio is hiting .556 (5-for-9) in his career against Duke, with two doubles and a .778 slugging percentage.
KTRH 740 AM
Tuesday: Pittsburgh (Ian Snell, 14-11, 4.74) at Houston (TBA), 8:05 p.m. ET
Wednesday: Pittsburgh (Tom Gorzelanny, 2-5, 3.79) at Houston (TBA), 8:05 p.m. ET
Friday: Pittsburgh (Paul Maholm, 8-10, 4.76) at Cincinnati (TBA), 7:10 p.m. ET
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.