Notes: Duke hopeful after spring outing

Notes: Duke hopeful after spring outing

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Let the debates begin.

There's arguably no one under a greater public microscope this season than Zach Duke. One extraordinary rookie season followed by two mediocre ones has left everyone wondering what can be expected of the 24-year-old left-hander this year.

Knowing that, Duke took the mound against the Reds on Saturday for his first start of the spring.

It wasn't exactly stellar: five runs (four earned) on six hits -- two of which left the park -- in two innings. But remember to be slow to rush to judgment. One spring outing doesn't equate to an unsuccessful season to come.

Don't forget Tom Gorzelanny's spring a year ago.

"I felt good. The big thing for me is that I feel healthy," Duke said. "Two mistakes. It's Spring Training."

However, that's not to say that there isn't still work that needs to be done.

Not one of the 12 hitters Duke faced swung and missed at a pitch. And yes, there were plays in the field that could have -- and in some cases, should have -- been made, but the Reds left-handed hitters were all over Duke's array of pitches.

"He was OK," manager John Russell said in his assessment afterward. "His command to the lefties was obviously not as good. He needs to get a little more efficient in the strike zone.

"His ball had some good sink to it and there was obviously some life to his pitches," Russell continued. "It wasn't a terrible outing for him. He left a few balls over the plate."

Though Duke's been named as one of the starting five in the Pirates' rotation already, Saturday once again reiterated that his spot is locked up. It would seem that Duke still has much to prove over the next month, and he will remain the one that other pitchers trying to make the club see as being vulnerable.

The silver lining for Duke, however, was his command against right-handed hitters, who combined to go 3-for-8 against him on the afternoon. Last season, right-handers combined to hit .363 against him.

"I think that I actually did throw some quality pitches," Duke said. "My fastball did have some life on it. The changeup had good life. I think the ball is coming out of my hand nice, other than a couple of mistakes. I felt good."

Duke's next outing will be on Thursday, when he takes the mound for three innings.

McLouth sidelined: Nate McLouth was a late scratch from the lineup on Saturday after the outfielder complained of some tightness in his right hamstring in the morning. Russell said that McLouth had been feeling a little tightness earlier in the week, but that it wasn't until Saturday that the tightness wasn't alleviated by some morning running.

"[McLouth's hamstring] didn't really loosen up like he wanted it to," Russell said. "So we're going to shut him down and see how he feels the next few days."

Nyjer Morgan -- McLouth's competition in the battle for the starting center-field spot -- took his place in the lineup.

Keeping up with Kuwata: The report from right-hander Masumi Kuwata a day after making his first Spring Training appearance was that his ankle held up just fine, despite it still not being at full strength. Kuwata, who is still healing from right ankle surgery that he had back in September, pitched one inning of relief in the Pirates' "B" game on Friday and retired all three hitters he faced.

"I was worried about my ankle before, but afterward, it was fine," Kuwata said on Saturday," I was able to do my style of pitching, which is just locating."

He estimated his ankle strength at about 90 percent, though there proved to be no mobility limitations as Kuwata even made a tough defensive play on a bunt from Phillies hitter Greg Golson.

Bucs bits: Last year's top Draft pick Daniel Moskos made his Grapefruit League debut in the eighth inning of Saturday's game. The young lefty walked the leadoff hitter before outfielder Chris Dickerson took him deep. Moskos did settle down to retire the next three batters. ... Three Pirates prospects dented Baseball America's 2008 Top 100 list, which was released earlier this week. All three prospects -- Andrew McCutchen (No. 14), Neil Walker (No. 61) and Steve Pearce (No. 89) are currently at the team's Major League camp.

On deck: The Pirates return home to Bradenton on Sunday for their first spring contest against the Rays. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET at McKechnie Field.

Sunday's game will be the first time staff ace Tom Gorzelanny takes the mound after being pushed back from his scheduled start last Thursday due to minor irritation in his pitching shoulder. Gorzelanny is slated to pitch one inning in relief of starter Paul Maholm, who will pitch two innings. Tampa Bay will send right-hander Jeff Niemann to the mound for the start.

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