The big story out of this game will be Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson leading the way for the Pirates with four hits apiece as the Bucs rattled off 17 hits and seven runs against the Cardinals to earn at least a split in their season-opening series. Whenever the Pirates have an offensive game like this one, it’s going to turn some heads because few expected many games like this this year. As nice as the offensive explosion was to see, much of the offense (12 hits and four runs) came off of Todd Wellemeyer, who pretty clearly had nothing on the ball from the outset. If he looked familiar to you tonight, he should have. He was about on par with Ian Snell’s ugly Tuesday start. So 11 hits from Sanchez, Wilson, and Moss is great to see with two more from Nyjer and a homer from Nate, but it’s not what’s most interesting about Wednesday’s win.
No, that honor belongs to Zach Duke. You know I’ve been harping on Duke’s short-comings constantly for about two years now, so let me say this: if Duke pitches the rest of the season the way he pitched Wednesday night, he’s going to be the most improved pitcher on the Pirates and probably in the NL Central and maybe even in the entire National League. Yes, that’s a strong statement, and yes, I’m standing behind it. For two years, we’ve been saying that Duke’s problem is that he doesn’t miss bats. Too many balls get put in play, he doesn’t fool anybody, etc. etc. etc. Tonight, his fastball was constantly popping the glove at 90 mph or more and in his first five, his four-seamer was actually averaging 92 mph. That’s a far cry from a guy who’s been sitting at 88 since his rookie year. With a little more zip on his fastball and some great pitch placement, he struck out four hitters in 6 1/3 innings and looked as good as he’s looked in the last few years. All told, he only allowed five hits and one earned run in those 6 1/3.
It’s just one start, but it was dramatically different from the Duke that I’m used to seeing on the mound. I don’t like to make snap judgments and that’s not going to change now, but Duke’s start impressed me just about as much as anything that could’ve happened this week. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for a guy that’s been lost in the woods for a few years.
Before I forget, I also wanted to add that I thought that John Russell managed his patchwork pitching staff very well tonight. He got Duke through six, but didn’t push him after that. That’s always the right thing to do early in the year, especially with a big lead. He went to Grabow after that and when he cruised through the rest of the seventh, he stuck with him for the eighth. That left him with a four-run lead in the ninth, so he tried to squeeze the inning out of someone other than Matt Capps. When it became clear that Tyler Yates didn’t have it, he yanked him right off the mound and used Capps to close out the win. I’d rather he didn’t have to use Capps, but I’m sure he feels the same way. You have to win tonight before you can win tomorrow.