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Duke cruises through latest start |

Duke cruises through latest start

| Friday, March 17, 2006 12:00 a.m

SARASOTA, Fla. — Zach Duke spent more time running along the outfield warning track at Ed Smith Stadium than he did on the mound Thursday afternoon.

That was good news for the Pirates.

Pitching on three days of rest — in a move he said was probably designed “to set up the rotation” — Duke swiftly worked three innings and allowed just one earned run on two hits while striking out three Cincinnati Reds in the Pirates’ 7-2 loss.

Not bad for a 22-year-old who is seemingly a lock to soon be named the Pirates’ Opening Day starter.

“It’d be nice, of course,” Duke said of the possibility starting his first Opening Day — April 3 in Milwaukee against the Brewers.

After the game, Pirates manager Jim Tracy again refused to name his starter for the opener.

However, Duke said he was notified earlier in the week by pitching coach Jim Colborn that he would work on short rest against the Reds.

Such an unusual spring-training move can only be interpreted as the Pirates setting up Duke to be the season-opening starter.

Duke confirmed yesterday that Colborn assured him that he would work on five days of rest through the remainder of spring training. That schedule would have Duke starting March 21 and 27, which would put him in line to start the opener on six days of rest.

By then, Duke hopes to have the kinks worked out of his two-seam fastball. He had struggled with his go-to pitch during early exhibition starts, but he’s been pleased with the way he’s thrown it over his past two.

“The consistency is getting there,” Duke said. “This was probably the best that I’ve felt all spring.”

Tracy pulled Duke aside after taking him out of yesterday’s game and praised his work.

“He looked a lot like the Zach Duke we saw last year, and that’s a very good sign,” Tracy said. “You saw a guy who is spearheading himself in the direction he wants to go in.”

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