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Duke gets back on winning track

Duke gets back on winning track

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PITTSBURGH -- It didn't take long for Zach Duke to see that his start Monday night against the Brewers was going to be a little different from most of the others this season.

In the Pirates' 4-3 win at PNC Park, Duke mowed the Brewers down in order on seven pitches in the first inning. For a guy who had allowed 31 first-inning runs in his previous 30 starts, the fast start was a sign that he was on his way to snapping a month-long winless drought.

"It's nice to have one of those every once in a while," Duke said, smiling. "I definitely felt like I was going to have a pretty good day after that."

Indeed he did.

Duke went on to limit Milwaukee to two runs on five hits and two walks while matching a season high with seven strikeouts. After giving up a home run to Bill Hall to begin the fourth inning, Duke did not allow a Brewers baserunner to advance beyond first base.

"With the exception of the home run by Billy Hall, they did not really hit the ball hard off of him all night long," said Pirates manager Jim Tracy.

The seven strikeouts and nine groundouts Duke induced were tangible evidence that he had rediscovered the heavy movement of his sinker that made him a rookie sensation a year ago.

"His sinker in his last two outings has been, I'm sure, the sinker they saw a lot of here last year when he arrived," Tracy said. "The last couple of times out, his sinker has been very deep. Guys are either swinging over the top of it or rolling over it and hitting week ground balls."

Tracy noted that he's also seen Duke add three miles per hour to his fastball, from 85 mph to 88 mph, during his recent starts. Duke attributed this boost in velocity to improved pitching mechanics.

"I'm just using my leverage," Duke explained. "I'm not jerking the ball. I'm just free, loose and easy. I'm just letting it happen and trusting that my mechanics are going to work."

Although Duke (9-13) had pitched well since earning his previous win on Aug. 11, allowing three earned runs or fewer in four of five starts, he'd been the victim of poor run support. Pittsburgh had scored just nine runs in Duke's previous five starts.

"It's been a little frustrating," said Duke. "It's definitely nice to have something to show for a nice pitching performance."

Pirates leadoff man Chris Duffy and Jack Wilson did their best Monday to make sure that Duke would not be a tough-luck loser once again.

Duffy went 2-for-4 with a walk, scored one run and knocked in two more. His two-out, two-run single off Brewers starter Doug Davis in the fourth put the Pirates ahead for good.

"I'm just trying to get on base, trying to make things happen and trying to have fun," said Duffy. "Things are starting to fall in place a little bit. I'm starting to get some balls to fall and it's making the game a little more fun."

Duffy, who is attempting to lock down the starting center field job for 2007, has made a strong case for himself in the last month. Since Aug. 11, Duffy has batted .310, scored 23 runs and swiped 12 bases.

"It's exactly what we are looking for from him," Tracy said. "He has really, really been good for the last month or so."

Wilson, who was making his fourth consecutive start after sitting out for two weeks with an inner ear infection, went 3-for-4 with an RBI and a stolen base. He put down a perfectly-executed push bunt between Davis and Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder in the third inning to chase Duke home from third base with the Pirates' second run.

"I didn't even really think about doing it until Davis was halfway into his windup," Wilson said. "He's got nasty stuff and it's always a challenging hitting him. In that situation, I wanted to make sure I got a run in."

Wilson also made a play deep in the hole at shortstop in the ninth inning to rob Kevin Mench of a hit and help limit the Brewers' late rally to one run.

"That probably kept them from tying the game in the ninth inning," said Tracy. "That was a terrific defensive play."

Pirates reliever Salomon Torres allowed one run in the ninth inning, but held on for his sixth save in as many chances since taking over for injured closer Mike Gonzalez.

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

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