Duke's struggles lead to Pirates' loss

Duke's struggles lead to Pirates' loss

NEW YORK -- This was not what Zach Duke envisioned when he talked about finding a way to bounce back from his last start -- an outing that ended one inning after it began.

This was not the start of a stretch that could end Duke's season on a high note, and it certainly isn't going to help his case as management evaluates what to do as he approaches his third offseason of arbitration-eligibility.

That is, of course, making the presumptuous assumption that a decision hasn't already been made.

Duke went just 3 1/3 innings deep on Tuesday, his effectiveness no better than it has been lately. Knocked around for seven earned runs, he put the Pirates in an early hole that paved the way to a 9-1 loss to the Mets at Citi Field.

"Tough outing," manager John Russell said. "He's not getting the ball where he wants to, and it's hurting him."

Facing a New York club that had a season batting average higher than only one National League team (the Pirates), Duke fooled hardly anyone. The Mets pushed across a run in the first before three more scored in the second. Two singles and a two-out walk loaded the bases for Angel Pagan, who followed with a double. A pair of runs scored on the hit, and another followed when Ryan Doumit bobbled the ball in right field.

"I was more aggressive," Duke said. "The ball was just hittable."

That four-run deficit morphed to six when Carlos Beltran and Nick Evans crushed solo homers in the third. The blasts ended a string of seven straight games in which Pittsburgh starters had not allowed a home run, though they were the 22nd and 23rd surrendered by Duke this year. Only nine NL pitchers have allowed more.

Duke took the mound in the fourth and lasted just three hitters, as a pair of singles and a sacrifice bunt drove in the seventh Mets run. Another was charged to Duke as he watched from the dugout, thus ending his night with eight runs allowed (seven earned) on nine hits. His ERA rose, to 5.78.

"I obviously have been not good at all these last two starts, and this team has been battling much too hard for me to do that to them," Duke said. "I have to find a way to be better, and I will."

With this latest loss, Duke joined fellow lefty Paul Maholm with a league-high 14 this season. It marks the third straight year in which Duke has lost at least that many games, and he is threatening to match -- with a chance to even surpass -- the career-worst 16-loss season he suffered in 2009.

What is perplexing, too, is how the left-hander has fallen so far so quickly. Though his career has been marred by plenty of struggles, he did earn a place on the NL All-Star team just 14 months ago. Yet since then he has gone 10-25 with a 5.45 ERA in 43 starts. Batters have hit .326 against him this season.

He attributed none of his recent problems to a physical ailment or fatigue, saying only, "[My] stuff is there. [I] just have to figure out a way."

Russell, too, cited no physical issues as the culprit for Duke's continual downward spiral.

"Everything he does in between [starts] is really good," Russell said. "He just can't repeat it when he gets out in a game."

Duke's troubling string of results left Russell noncommittal on Tuesday when he was asked if the lefty would remain in the rotation for the remainder of the season. Pittsburgh has other starting candidates who could step into Duke's spot if the Pirates determine that the best way for him to emerge from this funk is to not take the mound every fifth day.

"We'll consider what our options are," Russell said. "We'll talk about it more over the next couple of days."

Though Duke gave the offense no chance at evening up the series, the Pirates' hitters remain unable to do their job early in games.

With just one tally -- and that one coming in the ninth -- off Mets starter R.A. Dickey, the Pirates have scored just three runs against starters in their last six games. Opposing starters have logged 42 innings during that stretch.

Dickey, who improved to 11-6 with the victory, had something to do with the Pirates' lack of offensive success, as the 35-year-old knuckleballer put another gold star on his sensational season with a second complete game.

Pittsburgh pushed just one runner into scoring position through the first eight innings, and three double plays erased other scoring opportunities.

"It was the first time all year that I've had a wind directly in my face," Dickey said, noting how it aided his bread-and-butter pitch. "Usually, it's going right to left or left to right or behind me a little bit. It had some severe movement."

With the defeat, the Pirates sit four losses away from becoming the eighth team -- and first since 2001 -- in the organization's 124-year history to lose 100. Pittsburgh, 15-57 on the road, is on pace to drop 108.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.