Zach Duke started developing command of his pitches when he was about eight or nine years old and living on a 90-acre farm 30 miles north of Waco, Texas. In between his daily chores, Duke would try to throw strikes by tossing a baseball at a circular target he had painted on a cement wall. "For as long as I can remember, I'd spend at least an hour out there every day," says Duke, a rookie lefthander with the Pirates. "Later I painted a batter on the wall; I guess I had nothing better to do."
All that throwing, often when the temperature reached 100°, paid off when Duke was called up from Triple A Indianapolis on July 1 and made his major league debut a day later. He struck out nine and gave up five hits and three earned runs in the Pirates' 5--3 loss to the Brewers--Duke didn't figure into the decision--and has been nearly unhittable since, mostly because of his impeccable control. Striking out six Dodgers in 71/3 innings to earn a 9--4 victory last Saturday, Duke, 22, became the second rookie in Pirates history to win his first five decisions as a starter (Whitey Glazner did it in 1921). What's more, his 0.87 ERA in July was the lowest among starters in the majors, and his season mark stood at 1.54.
The sizzling start has amazed most observers, including Duke himself. "When I was sitting in the dugout before a start at Wrigley Field [on July 16], I saw Greg Maddux take the mound and thought to myself, Wow, I've really made it," says Duke, who would go on to pitch eight shutout innings in a 3--0 victory and impress Maddux.
Duke mixes a sharp breaking ball with a low-90s fastball and a changeup he throws with pinpoint accuracy. Duke, who grew up watching Rangers games on TV and idolized Nolan Ryan, was Pittsburgh's 20th-round draft pick in 2001 and last season went 15--6 with a 1.46 ERA for Class A Lynchburg and Double A Altoona combined. He was 12--3 with a 2.92 ERA at Indianapolis before he was called up. "I don't know how he went in the 20th round," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, after Duke had allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings of a 4--1 win over Atlanta on Aug. 1. "He's as good as they come."
Duke is one of a handful of recent call-ups who have given the Pirates hope, though they are on track for the club's 13th straight losing season. Rookie centerfielder Chris Duffy, who was recalled on July 17, hit safely in 16 of his last 17 starts through Sunday, while playing dazzling defense in the outfield. First baseman Brad Eldred, promoted to the majors on July 21, hit his first big league homer last Friday and was hitting .268.
"It's an exciting time," says Duke. "The next few years look bright for us, and I hope to be a big part of turning things around for this franchise."