Duke has seized moment on Opening Day
Pirates have opportunity to win fourth season opener in row
Manager John Russell insisted that the assignment could have gone to any of the three: Zach Duke, Paul Maholm or Ross Ohlendorf. But it's hard to argue that Duke, who ultimately earned the Opening Day nod, wasn't the most deserving.
Duke is coming off an All-Star season, even if the results over his final two months weren't all that impressive. He established a career high with 11 wins, which tied for most on the club. His tenure in Pittsburgh is longer than anyone else on the starting staff.
And as much as anything, Duke has shown an ability to have some big games on big stages.
Given the chance to pitch last season's home opener, the left-hander turned in one of club's best starting performances all season. His complete-game shutout was the first in a Pirates home opener since John Candelaria's 31 years earlier.
In 2007, Duke turned heads with a quality start in his first Opening Day assignment. That outing against Houston ended in a Pirates extra-inning win after seven strong innings from Duke.
"It was a pretty special one," he said, reflecting back on that outing. "It was in Houston, so all of my family and friends were able to be there. And the fact that we were able to win in dramatic fashion that day was pretty neat and pretty memorable. Hopefully, we can do something like that again this year."
He'll have his shot on Monday, when the Pirates open the season with a 1:35 p.m. ET game against the Dodgers at PNC Park. The Pirates have not hosted a season opener since 2005.
There is a lot of talk about streaks in Pittsburgh, mostly laced in negativity. However, a strong start from Duke and complementary effort from the rest of the club could put the Pirates in position to do something they haven't done since before the end of World War II: win four straight Opening Day games.
The team's current string of three includes two extra-innings wins and a come-from-behind victory with two out in the ninth. Not since the Pirates reeled off Opening Day wins every season from 1935-40 has the club won its first game in four consecutive seasons.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
"It is an honor," Duke said of the assignment. "But at the same time, I know there are two other guys that could have done it as well. It just so happens that I get the opportunity. I'm definitely thankful, and hopefully I can give us a good showing."
Duke is just one of a group of four starters for whom the Pirates have big hopes this year. Duke and Maholm return as the most experienced and often the most consistent. Ohlendorf established himself as a reliable arm last season with a strong finish. And all three of them will admit that No. 4 starter Charlie Morton probably has the best stuff of anyone in the rotation, if he can just tap into all that talent.
For a team that many think could be hard-pressed to score a lot of runs, the success of this quartet could very well sway the success of the team one direction or the other.
"I know that I'll certainly do my part and try to set a good example, doing the work and following the plan," Duke said. "Hopefully we can just feed off of each other and give us a chance to win every day."
Duke's season-opening assignment isn't an easy one, as Los Angeles is primed to test him with a lineup that includes most pieces from an offense that led the league with a .270 batting average last year. Duke, who will be opposed by right-hander Vicente Padilla, allowed just three runs in 16 innings against Los Angeles last year. Those results were much improved on his career numbers, which include a 2-3 record and 5.68 ERA.
His progression this spring, by all accounts, has been as good as could be expected. After stumbling a bit in his second Grapefruit League start, Duke responded by combining to allow just one run and four hits in his next two (10 1/3 innings).
"I've felt better and better each time out," he said. "I'm throwing all my pitches for strikes and am pitching ahead in the count. I like where I am at. I certainly feel like I'm at that point of feeling really good again."
The Pirates can only hope that feeling carries over through Monday.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.