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Duke’s career off to great start

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – Zach Duke was pitching at Class A Lynchburg at this time a year ago, so the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t ready to label the rookie as their staff ace just yet.

At least not for another one or two starts.

After watching a string of seemingly can’t-miss prospects struggle for them since their last winning season in 1992 – Jason Schmidt and Kris Benson among them – the Pirates understand they shouldn’t get too excited too early.

That’s proving difficult. Duke, who doesn’t throw 95 mph or possess a devastating, can’t-hit-this pitch such as Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball, yet seems to have everything it takes to be a big winner.

Duke’s performance so far would excite any manager: a 3-0 record and 0.93 ERA in four starts, with 26 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 innings. Duke threw eight shutout innings to beat Maddux and the Cubs 3-0 on Saturday, then ran his scoreless streak to 22 innings with five shutout innings in an 8-1 win over Colorado on Thursday night.

Duke, a 2001 20th-round draft choice from Clifton, Texas, was wilder against Chicago than in his previous starts, striking out five and walking four in seven innings, but allowed only one run and eight hits. He has given up just one homer, that in his first start July 2 in Milwaukee.

“He’s off to a wonderful start, and I’ve said time and time again I think he’s going to be a wonderful pitcher for a long time,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “But he will have times when he struggles and he has to keep an even keel.”

What is rapid is Duke’s transition from prospect — he was 12-3 earlier this season at Triple-A Indianapolis — to a starting pitcher on a team that’s looked everywhere for a No. 1 starter for years.

“It’s just coming at me so fast, I’m trying to absorb it,” Duke said. “I’m very happy with how it’s gone, but there’s always room for improvement.”

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