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Bucs take hard loss in Duke's final start

Bucs take hard loss in Duke's final start

MILWAUKEE -- The Pirates' final chance this season to cause a bit of havoc in an exciting final few days of the season was met by a frenzied 40,102 fans at Miller Park on Thursday and a Brewers team looking unflappable and unstoppable.

A chance to snap an 0-14 skid at Miller Park and to derail the Brewers' hopes for a postseason berth ended with one overthrown slider by Jesse Chavez in the 10th that was greeted by Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. Braun deposited the pitch into the left-field seats and set off a spirited celebration with the walk-off grand slam.

"I thought it was the right pitch," Chavez said after the team's 5-1 loss. "I just didn't execute. It slid across the plate, right into his sweet spot."

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That pitch spoiled an evening in which the Pirates received another strong starting performance from Zach Duke. It also made missed opportunities with runners on base in the ninth and 10th innings that much more costly.

Chavez took the mound in the 10th, following two scoreless innings from the bullpen. Second baseman Rickie Weeks squeaked a single through the right side of the infield to lead off. A sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk followed. But Chavez, who gave up a costly run in Tuesday's loss, responded by striking out outfielder Mike Cameron on a 96-mph fastball.

"I thought he was throwing the ball great," said Pirates manager John Russell.

But Chavez lost the battle with pinch-hitter Craig Counsell, walking him to load the bases. Braun, mired in a September slump in which he had hit just one homer and tallied five RBIs, worked the count to 2-2 before ensuring that the Brewers will sit tied atop the Wild Card standings for another day.

"You learn from every game," said Chavez, who picked up his first Major League loss. "Now I know not to try and make it a better pitch, but get it to the location that I want to."

A strong finish in Duke's final start, one that Brewers interim manager Dale Sveum said was the best he had ever seen from the southpaw, was partially lost by the end of this.

It's been a season of mixed results for Duke, who came into the season with lofty expectations upon reuniting with his Minor League pitching coach Jeff Andrews, hoping to reverse the fortunes of two disappointing seasons.

As well as the season started, though, it got just as tumultuous in the middle. At one point, Duke went 14 consecutive starts without a win. But after an '07 season riddled with injuries, Duke stayed healthy and in many respects, finished strong.

"It means a lot," said Duke, who surpassed his innings count from last year by 78 1/3. "I kept a lot of pride in my offseason routine and prepared myself a lot to go a full length of the season again. To be able to finish with good stuff and decent results, it's definitely good for me."

Russell pointed to consistency as the key for Duke to parlay sporadic success in '07 into prolonged success in '08.

What does he need to avoid?

"Letting things get a little out of whack, trying to be a little too perfect, trying to avoid contact a little too much," Russell answered.

If that was the checklist of sorts going into next season, Duke's final start of 2008 was the first step in the right direction.

Duke had an excuse to let things get out of whack considering the shoddy defense that was played behind him early on.

A two-out error in the second forced Duke to face an extra batter. He'd find himself in a similar bind in the second when Freddy Sanchez slipped fielding a ground ball and then Adam LaRoche committed a fielding error on the next ball hit in play.

"We should have made some plays that we didn't," Russell said. "Balls came up a little bit. But Adam's usually pretty good and Freddy has always been able to make plays like that."

Even Milwaukee's run off Duke came with no help of the defense behind him. Needing only about three steps to his left to field the ball, shortstop Brian Bixler, who had already been charged with a throwing error one inning earlier, couldn't corral Cameron's ground ball with two outs in the third.

Cameron was awarded a hit on the play and then scored when Brewers third baseman Bill Hall doubled him home.

"It's a tough one, but it's kind of fitting to end my year like that," said Duke, who finished the season 5-14. "They are a good team and they do all the right thing to win games."

And as for the being a little too perfect or nibbling around the plate too much, Duke had no such problem. He didn't walk a batter in his seven innings of work and finished with a better than two-to-one strikes-to-balls ratio. He scattered seven hits -- all but one singles.

He had his manager's blessing, too, to return to the mound in the seventh, despite his spot coming up in the batting order in the top half of the inning with a runner on first and two out.

"I thought he threw the ball really well," Russell said. "I was really trying to get him a win, and the way he was throwing, I thought he really deserved to go back out."

The Pirates' only run in support of Duke came in the fourth when Steve Pearce connected for his third home run this month and his second in this series. It came off of Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo, who was making his first start since undergoing surgery on his right knee in May.

Jenifer Langosch 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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