In the spring, after the worst team in baseball released him, Zach Duke wondered what he would do next. If he could not pitch for the Houston Astros, whom could he pitch for? “It doesn’t look really good for you,” Duke said.
Duke, 29, had fallen far from his best days. As a rookie with the Pirates in 2005, he compiled a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts. In 2009, he made the all-star team. Now he could not find a spot in a shaky rotation. Only one team, thanks to connections from his past, offered him even a minor league contract. He signed with the Nationals and headed to the minors.
Today, Duke arrived a point he never expected he would, not even a week ago. The Nationals called him to the major leagues, where he will pitch out of the bullpen. The Nationals wanted an extra left-handed arm in a pennant race, and they also wanted to reward Duke for the work he put in to find his old form and the success – a 15-5 record with a 3.51 ERA – he had at Class AAA Syracuse.
“I didn’t expect to be called up,” Duke said. “It was pretty shocking. It was very overwhelming a couple days ago.”
Duke drove from Syracuse to Washington late last night, hitching a ride with fellow call-up Christian Garcia. He was not on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, but the Nationals placed Henry Rodriguez on the 60-day disabled list, and Duke is active today. The Nationals could use an additional lefty with Sean Burnett resting an irritated elbow. They also wanted to give Duke credit.
“I think it’s very important,” Johnson said. “This goes back to we’re trying repudiate my buddy in Tampa about nobody wanting to sign here.” (Johnson was referring to his feud with Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who insisted players wouldn’t sign with the Nationals because Johnson checked reliever Joel Peralta’s glove for pine tar.)
“I think it’s good when some guys sign with us and play good they get rewarded for it,” Johnson added. “I like having another left-hander. He may get a big out against Atlanta or somebody.”
In April, pitching in a playoff race was the furthest thing from Duke’s mind. He only hoped he could recapture what made him a solid major leaguer until 2010, at which point he punched up a 5.46 ERA over two seasons. The Nationals may have been the perfect team for him.
Duke gathered all the film he could from 2005, his rookie year in Pittsburgh. Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams was his pitching coach with the Pirates, and he had a vivid recollection of Duke’s delivery.
Together with Syracuse pitching coach Greg Booker, Duke and Williams noticed how Duke’s delivery had changed. He strode toward the catcher in a different direction, which compromised his arm speed and his deception.
“We really just tried to base what I was doing based on what we saw on the video,” Duke said. “It was just a lot of consistent work and a lot of working together that got me back to being the way I feel I should be.”
By the second half of the season, Duke felt “locked in,” back to the being the same pitcher he was in Pittsburgh. He had gotten everything he hoped for out of the season. And then a couple days ago, coaches in Syracuse told him he would likely be called up.
“This is just the icing on the cake for me,” Duke said. “I feel as good on the mound as I have in years. It’s a very comforting feeling for a pitcher.”
Duke will pitch out of the bullpen, something he did last year with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second half of the season. Most likely, he will just be an arm in reserve in case of emergency. But he’s here, which for him means the most.
“I’m in the bullpen, ready to pitch whenever,” Duke said. “When the phone rings, I’ll just get ready and give them everything I’ve got.”