Duke to stay in rotation


It was an interesting night at Citi Field, mostly in the hours before the game started. With bad weather on the way, the tarp came out and the Citi Field folks delayed opening the gates to fans. There was talk that the game might not be played at all based on what the radar was showing.

They did open the gates, of course, and then the storm hit. This was not just rain. It came out later that there had been funnel clouds spotted over Staten Island and a possible tornado in Brooklyn, with high winds and lots and lots of trees down, disrupting train and subway service and delaying flights at the airports. One woman was actually killed in Queens on the Grand Central Parkway when a tree landed on her car.

At the ballpark, not only were the lightning and thunder intense, but the skies also got so dark and the rain so heavy that you couldn’t see the other side of the field. The scoreboard, video board, big Pepsi-Cola sign in right field. … couldn’t see any of it. What you could see was rain literally swirling in circles, changing directions, going sideways, then what looked like papers or plates or other concession stand goods blowing horizontally from the concourse across the seats and out into the field.

For storm buffs – which obviously I am – it was a heck of a one to witness.

But enough about that.

Everything died down and, although the rain came back, the game was played, to the familiar tune of another Pirates road loss. The following is the full feature on Zach Duke staying in the starting rotation that was going to run in the event that the game was wiped out. Condensed for Friday’s notes in the print edition, here’s the full-length version for the blog…..

FLUSHING, N.Y. — Zach Duke isn’t done yet.

Two days after John Russell said they’d have to decide whether to keep Duke in the rotation, the manager said on Thursday that the left-hander will start on Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“The kid’s worked hard,” Russell said. “We’d like to give him the opportunity to straighten things out.”

Questions about Duke’s immediate future with the Pirates came up after another dreadful outing against the New York Mets on Tuesday. He lasted just 3 1/3 innings and allowed eight runs, seven earned, and nine hits with one walk and four strikeouts. It was the second breakdown in a row for the 27-year-old lefty, who was yanked with the bases loaded and no one out in the second inning against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 8. He gave up six runs, four earned, in the one inning.

Russell said they’ve been trying to get Duke back to his old self, working on tempo and arm speed and making his delivery less choppy and more aggressive.

But the problem is also in Duke’s head.

His side sessions between starts have been excellent, both Russell and pitching coach Ray Searage said.

He just hasn’t been able to carry it over into games.

“The biggest thing has been not trusting himself, trying to make his stuff better rather than using the stuff we had in the sides,” Searage said. “He’s trying to make the slider sharp that much more or the fastball sink that much more or the changeup be that much more of a deception pitch and he got out of himself. We’re trying to help him find his identity to be Zach again.”

Duke’s sitting at a 7-14 record, four wins shy of his career-high 11 set in 2009, and two shy of a career-high in losses, also set last year. He’s also on pace to have his highest ERA, currently at 5.78. In 2007, Duke was 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA.

He has just two wins in his last nine starts dating back to the beginning of August.

Searage knows what it’s like to get into the habit of thinking too much on the mound. He also knows it doesn’t work.

“I’ll go on past experience, you’re ready for a padded room because you’re trying to search for answers and it’s hard to see what’s happening on the outside, never mind what you’re trying to handle on the inside,” Searage said. “Your mind’s racing a mile a minute and you’re trying to make adjustments on the fly because you know you can get guys out and all of a sudden it’s not playing that way.”

Searage is trying to get Duke to pare the job down to the simplest of terms, focusing on one and only one pitch, executing that pitch and then turning the page and moving on to the next pitch.

And only that one pitch.

How close he thinks Duke may be to working his way out of it, Searage wouldn’t say.

“Let’s say he’s closer,” Searage said.