Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to Zach Duke's Nightmare

8-17-10: vs. the Florida Marlins

Welcome to Zach Duke's Nightmare

On July 21st, Zach Duke had one of his best starts of the season. He pitched six innings and allowed only two earned runs, giving the beleaguered Pirates bullpen a much-needed break and effectively sticking it to the Milwaukee Brewers, infamous for their hatred of Jeff Karstens and their 20-0 victory only a few months earlier.
However, in the seventh inning, a familiar pattern once again emerged and Duke seemed to suddenly lose his command. After three near-perfect innings, Duke gave up a lead-off single to George Kottaras, followed by another single hit by Lorenzo Cain. Recently-promoted catcher Eric Kratz stepped onto the mound to talk things over with Duke, who smirked grimly as John Russell left the dugout to make the switch. Duke had given his team a chance to win and largely silenced the Brewers' bats, but the glimmer of his past excellence had shone only briefly. The mid-game brick wall that Duke has repeatedly beat his head against this season had appeared once again; in this start it didn't happen until the top of the seventh, but the same questions in regards to Duke's stamina were raised nonetheless.

As Duke exited the game, gallows grin still firmly in place, the crowd applauded and even cheered. It was less than a week before the trade deadline, and the general consensus was that at least one lefty Pirates pitcher was going to be playing elsewhere. Paul Maholm was one of the only starting pitchers in the rotation with any degree of reliability, however, and Zack Duke's disappointing 2010 season compounded by his impending raise for next year meant that he had very likely just pitched his final game in PNC Park as a Pirate.

He should have been so lucky.

It is now august 18th, and Duke is still here. The bullpen that had managed to bail him out on several occasions, however, is not. Duke won his next start in Colorado on the 27th and has lost each of his four starts since the first of august and the bullpen's decimation. His ERA is now at 5.59, worst amongst the Pirates starters.

Zach Duke's decline has been a bit of a mystery. There was the shoulder injury that placed him on the DL earlier in the season, and perhaps he has not adequately recovered from it. Furthermore, his every-other-season success patterns suggest that Duke's endurance maylend itself more to long-relief. However, Duke's struggles this season paint an overall picture of a starting rotation of contact pitchers rendered largely ineffective by shoddy defense. Argenis Diaz's inability to turn a double play in the fifth inning lead to four consecutive singles and three RBIs. Doumit's defensive indifference (or inexperience, if you're being kind) in the sixth once again played a role in another RBI being scored. Duke was unable to recover, and at this point, can one really blame him?

Zach Duke's excellence during the first half of the 2009 season is at least partially indicative of how greatly a pitcher with his skill set can benefit from a solid defense, helmed at the time by Perry Hill. Once the double-play juggernaut of Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez got traded away, however, Duke's quality starts began to decline. Unfortunately, it has been that way ever since.

Duke's struggles are not solely to blame on the Pirates' defense, of course. Maholm, Ohlendorf and Karstens are similar pitchers who have experienced greater success this season in the same situations. However, the defense at the very least exacerbates Duke's weaknesses. It will be interesting to see what he does next year; if I were a bigger-market team with a solid defense looking for a fifth starter, I'd be willing to take a gamble on Duke (though his asking price jeopardizes this). Nevertheless, hopefully for his sake someone will.

Confidence is one of the big intangibles that governs so much of this sport; a ballplayer ideally performs the best he can regardless of the situation or the team he's playing for, but this is of course always easier said than done. It would be pure conjecture to speculate as to how greatly confidence effects Duke's game, but it is certainly very easy to imagine how said confidence in his team's defense might be greatly shaken at this point.

And now, on with the pictures....

I must admit, sometimes I get the feeling that Hanrahan is looking right at me. And that he's not happy. Maybe that's just cause of the season, though.
Always creative, the Pirates Parrot fishes for Marlins.
Unfortunately, this was the highlight of the Pirates offense last night.
McCutchen sports a super-sized glove. In an ironic move on the universe's part, McCutchen let another line drive fall out of his glove in center field tonight.

Ricky Nolasco pitched a gem. Five hits, nine strikeouts, six shutout innings.
After one game of solid productivity, Andrew McCutchen once again struggled to see the ball again tonight.
Here he reacts to his first out of the game.
Jose Tabata got a hit in the first inning. For quite some time, that was the extent of the Pirates offense.
Unfortunately, he got caught stealing.

Andrew McCutchen catches a pop-up in center field.
No doubt remembering a concussion he had sustained in a similar situation not too long ago, Neil Walker was wisely proactive in preventing a possible collision between Diaz and McCutchen.
Best part of the game.
Argenis Diaz does his best angry Doumit at bat impression.
Walker gets an out.

One of six baserunners to do this last night.
Angry Duke.
Doumit cursing his own misfortune.

Zach Duke and his Worried Mind.
McCutchen makes a truly remarkable catch.
Only to have this happen for the second night in the row. He was applauded for the effort nonetheless.
Despite walking two, Daniel McCutchen was once again effective in relief.
And so it continues. Tonight the Pirates face Josh Johnson, a man with a 10-5 record and an ERA of 2.27. Ohlendorf better be planning on having another good start. And it better last seven innings.

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