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02/24/10 4:57 PM EST

Duke may have his workload cut back

Bucs hoping to see consistency down stretch from lefty

BRADENTON, Fla. -- As much as 2009 was a step forward for Zach Duke, it was still far from the leap that would have been made if the left-hander could have only mirrored his first-half success in the season's final months.

Some of Duke's '09 statistics are unquestionably misleading. Take his 11-16 record, for instance, which was drastically skewed because of a consistent dearth of run support. In fact, those league-leading 16 losses included two complete-game defeats and a total of seven quality starts that went in the loss column.

Not having an offense to back him up seemed a cruel curse laid upon Duke much of the year.

However, there is nothing misleading about his numbers during the season's final two months. His ERA jumped to 5.80 during that 11-start span, and batters hit .326 against him. That was a staggering departure from the 3.26 and .265 marks Duke posted in the 21 starts that took him through the end of July.

And therein lays the goal for 2010.

The Pirates are determined to get six solid months from Duke as opposed to four, even if it means cutting back his workload slightly in the early going. Duke's early-season efficiency might have been a long-term detriment last year only because of how quickly his innings count escalated.

Through his first 21 starts of 2008, Duke had logged 121 1/3 innings, throwing a total of 1,930 pitches during that span. He posted a 5.04 ERA in the process, but managed to follow that up with a 4.38 ERA in his final 10 starts of the year.

Last year, however, Duke's innings count sat at 146 1/3 after 21 starts. And he had already thrown 101 more pitches than he had at the same point one year earlier.

Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan had Duke significantly cut back on his side throwing last season because of the heavy early workload. The hope was that doing so would give Duke's arm the stamina to make it through the final two months. But as the numbers show, that wouldn't be the case.

"Did those seven-, eight-, nine-inning outings [early] take a toll in August and September?" Kerrigan said when he was recently asked about Duke's late-season dip in results. "We might have to look at that a little bit. Maybe that has something to do with the wear and tear in August and September. We talked about that."

Duke doesn't entirely buy into the suggestion that his early workload hindered him, though he's not a guy who would advocate putting limitations on himself.

"When I look back at my games last year, the games I did really well were when I had the command," Duke said. "When the command wasn't so sharp, those were the games where I got hurt. [During] the second half, so many things didn't go my way. I feel like there were two or three innings that happened in the second half that affected my numbers in a big way. But as a whole, I'm pretty pleased with how it went."

Once again, Duke is set to be a critical cog in a Pirates rotation that had its moments in 2009, but not consistently so. His 131 career starts are most among any member of the staff. And even though a strong finish eluded him in '09, Duke showed early that he has the ability to be a workhorse in the rotation.

He arrived at Spring Training having mimicked the same offseason regimen that preceded his strong '09 start. That work once again included employing a trainer and an arm strength coach back in Texas through the winter months.

The consistency that Duke has maintained in his off-field preparations is now being looked at to translate into improved consistency in his results.

"I've always known what I was capable of," Duke said. "I feel like the comfort level with myself as a pitcher is definitely where I want it to be. I feel like I'm in control of my game, back to the point where I was when I first came up. I do feel that I know that I'm the kind of pitcher I want to be."

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