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Duke the beneficiary of leadoff blasts

Duke benefits from leadoff blasts

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates were in desperate need of something positive on Tuesday after a tough three-game sweep in New York and another losing road trip.

They got it in the first when Jose Bautista lashed the second pitch he saw for a leadoff home run, and the Bucs tallied two more runs to take a quick 3-0 lead, that set the tone for a 7-5 Pirates victory over the last-place Rangers in front of 21,158 fans at PNC Park.

"You put up a big inning in the first inning and that puts a little pressure on them [and] helps us relax and take some good at-bats," right-fielder Xavier Nady said.

The win was the Pirates' first victory over Texas in seven tries and their first in Interleague play this season.

The offense continued to build its lead against struggling Rangers starter Kevin Millwood. Millwood saw his ERA balloon to 7.82 after he allowed six runs -- five earned -- on eight hits and two walks.

"Tonight, his curveball wasn't working," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "That's one of his best pitches and when it's on, that's tough. When you can eliminate that as a hitter, 'cause he's not getting it over, it makes that fastball a little easier to hit."

That fastball was hit out of the park three times by Pirates hitters, tying the Bucs' season high. The offensive attack was keyed by Bautista, LaRoche and Nady, who each homered and combined to drive in six of the Bucs' seven runs.

"I liked what I saw offensively," manager Jim Tracy said. "There are people in the middle of that order that are capable of doing some things. One of the keys becomes, are we capable of getting some people on base in front of them? And if that's the case, obviously we have an opportunity to score some runs."

The Bucs followed that formula perfectly on Tuesday and provided starter Zach Duke with more than enough support. The left-hander allowed only two earned runs on eight hits and two walks in six innings of work.

It was a night of progress for Duke. He said he did a good job of throwing more quality pitches than he had in past outings.

"I feel like I'm definitely turning the corner in being back to where I need to be," Duke said. "The percentage of what I would call good pitches is getting much higher."

Tracy said he thought Duke had a solid approach on the mound and overall had better stuff than in previous outings.

"He had better life to his pitches, not only his fastball, but his breaking ball had better bite to it [and] his changeup was better," Tracy said. "I think it's a good start for him hopefully to head himself back in the direction he is capable of going in."

Duke was spotless in the first five innings despite giving up his fair share of baserunners. He allowed the leadoff man to reach base in four of the first five innings, but did not allow a run until the sixth, largely because he did not allow an extra-base hit until the sixth, and the Bucs turned four double plays in the first five innings.

"When Zach Duke's good, that's what he does," Tracy said. "He's not out there to strike out 10 or 15 guys. The ball's going to be in play and you've gotta catch it. The plays [the defense] made tonight are plays you expect a good defensive team to make."

The biggest of those double plays came in the fifth when Duke wiggled out of a bases-loaded and nobody out jam without allowing a run when he induced a flyout from Brad Wilkerson and Travis Metcalf tapped the ball back to Duke, who started a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.

"I definitely did work myself in a pretty big jam in the fifth," Duke said. "I was pretty happy with how I made some pretty good pitches there to get out of that and the defense did a good job for me all night."

The combination of limiting Rangers hitters to singles and getting timely double plays with a solid offensive performance gave the Bucs a good start to their six-game homestand and helped get the bad taste from the Yankees series out of their mouth.

"It was nice to get off to a good start here," LaRoche said. "It's obviously nice to be back home and get out of New York. Hopefully we can forget about that real soon."

Wins like this one will certainly help.

Jeremy Anders is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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