Pirates can't overcome Duke's shaky start

Pirates can't overcome Duke's shaky start

PITTSBURGH -- If this was it for Zach Duke as a Pirate -- and such potential seems high -- this was not the way it was supposed to end.

Not after Duke wowed the baseball world with that 1.81 ERA in his 14 rookie starts in 2005.

Not after he seemed to be finding his form under former pitching coach Joe Kerrigan early last season, parlaying first-half success into an All-Star Game selection.

Not after he began 2010 with a trio of strong performances.

But if this was indeed the final chapter of Duke's career in Pittsburgh, it ended in a frustrating and forgettable manner. In his final start of the year, the left-hander lasted only four innings in what was an 11-9 loss to the Marlins. The defeat came in front of 21,021 at Sun Life Stadium on Thursday and featured another huge night from third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who finished with five RBIs.

But Thursday was set up to be about Duke, regardless of how things turned out. And as they did, he ended the season with an 8-15 record -- tied with rotation mate Paul Maholm for the most losses in the National League -- and with opponents hitting .321 against him. That batting average against ranks last in the Majors among all starters accruing at least 100 innings of work.

"I don't know what to say," Duke said of his season. "It's obviously been frustrating. I've obviously got work to do."

"It was a tough year," added manager John Russell.

Duke is set to enter the offseason in limbo, unsure of where he'll be headed when pitchers report to camp next spring. Approaching his third season of arbitration eligibility, the lefty isn't an automatic free agent. But he will become one if the Pirates opt not to offer him a contract because of the near-$6 million salary that Duke would likely command through the arbitration process.

Given Duke's down year and inconsistent career results, it seems unlikely that the Pirates value Duke that high. Duke earned $4.3 million this year.

"I've performed at a level that could merit firing," Duke said when asked if it he thought about this potentially being his final start in black and gold. "If that happens, it's out of my control. If it happens, it happens."

Would he still like to stay in Pittsburgh?

"Of course," he said. "I enjoy these guys and I enjoy the city of Pittsburgh. But it's not my choice to make."

The progression of Thursday's contest followed an exasperatingly familiar pattern for Duke. He gave up too many hits and didn't get sufficient defensive help behind him. It began with the Marlins sending nine batters to the plate in the first, plating four on four hits and a pair of walks.

Ronny Cedeno's second-inning error -- the shortstop's fifth error in his past six games -- lengthened that inning to allow Florida to tack on its fifth run.

In the fourth, Alvarez's fielding error ultimately led to four unearned runs. Duke didn't help himself, though, allowing two hits and a monstrous three-run blast to rookie Mike Stanton following that defensive miscue. The inning didn't end until after Alvarez made another error. And when it was over, the Pirates were trailing, 9-2.

"I've got to make those plays at third," said Alvarez, who has committed 16 errors in his first 93 Major League games. "If I make those plays, it might have been a different story, a different outcome."

That would be all for Duke, in what finished as an 89-pitch effort.

"We kicked some balls behind him, which didn't help," Russell said. "He could have gotten out of a couple innings with a little less damage, I think. He was on the verge of limiting the damage and couldn't quite close the deal."

If Duke begins the 2011 season in a different uniform, he'll end his Pittsburgh career with a 45-70 record and 4.54 ERA. He has more wins at PNC Park (33) than any other pitcher, but also more losses in the last two seasons (31) than anyone in baseball.

He has been a mainstay in the rotation since making his Major League debut on July 2, 2005, and has made 158 starts since then.

"It wasn't good tonight," he said. "Just erratic command, honestly. That's all it was."

The Pirates' offense found itself in a five-run deficit after two innings and waited too long before making a furious comeback against Florida's bullpen.

Pittsburgh nicked starter Chris Volstad for two runs in the fourth when the club strung together four hits in a five-batter span. Cedeno's inning-ending double play wasted an opportunity to do more damage.

Cedeno tallied the team's third run of the night with a solo homer to lead off the seventh.

The Pirates pushed across three more in the eighth but missed a chance to pull even closer. Alex Presley and Jason Jaramillo squandered at-bats with the bases loaded. Up as the potential tying run, Delwyn Young stranded three with a flyout to shallow center.

"It would have been easy to really lay down in that game," Russell said. "Guys fought back. They could have really went flat."

Alvarez's three-run blast in the ninth gave Pittsburgh its final spark, but the club got no closer. Alvarez finished with a career-best four-hit, five-RBI night. He has now hit safely in 10 straight, during which he's batted .463 with seven runs, five doubles, four homers and 20 RBIs.

"I'm just trying to feel a little more comfortable every day and do whatever I can to help out," Alvarez said. "I've been trying to make adjustments and learn as much as I can."

Alvarez's hitting streak is the second longest on the team to Jose Tabata, whose two-hit night pushed his career-best streak to 13 games.

With Thursday's loss, the Pirates' dismal road record fell further, now hitting 16-62. With only three games remaining, Pittsburgh is guaranteed to become just the third team to play a 162-game schedule and finish with fewer than 20 road wins.

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