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Pirates' start encouraging

Pirates' start encouraging
Unlike the previous day, the Pirates did not record a triple play.

But there were some mighty rare sights Monday afternoon in a chilly home opener at PNC Park.

Among them:

? Bumper-to-bumper traffic before the 7-0 victory over the Houston Astros.

? A second consecutive Zach Duke win (not to mention a Zach Duke double, although, come to think of it, that is becoming a regular occurrence).

? A complete-game shutout in a home opener (hadn't happened since John Candelaria turned the trick 31 years earlier).

? A three-hit April game for Adam LaRoche (hadn't happened since 2006, when LaRoche played for the Atlanta Braves).

? Three doubles by the same player (Freddy Sanchez, who might have tied Paul Waner's 77-year-old team record if his drive to right-center hadn't been flagged down in the seventh).

? A resounding victory in a home opener (the Pirates had been outscored, 30-11, over their previous four).

On a day when Steelers linebacker James Harrison signed a contract worth more than the entire Pirates' payroll ? $51.75 million for Harrison; $48.69 million for the Pirates ? there were plenty of reasons for the 10th-largest crowd in PNC Park history (38,411) to feel good.

Let's start with Duke, who hadn't won back-to-back starts since June. His four-hit, five-strikeout masterpiece piggy-backed off an excellent spring and a victory over St. Louis five days earlier.

It also marked the Pirates' sixth quality start in seven games.

Duke is making people miss again. That element of his game had been missing for large chunks of the past three seasons.

"He's got bite on his slider, he's got bite on his curveball, and he's got really good arm action on his changeup," said catcher Ryan Doumit. "The guy's been phenomenal."

Astros slugger Lance Berkman could vouch for that. Berkman struck out three times, twice swinging. That included a first-inning whiff with one out and a man on second, when Duke got him to fish for a low, outside curveball.

Duke threw 119 pitches, a fairly high count, but said there was very little discussion of him coming out before the ninth.

"(Pitching coach) Joe (Kerrigan) just asked me how I felt," said Duke, who was inspired by an emotional pregame ceremony honoring Pittsburgh's three fallen policemen. "I said I felt good. That was the end of it."

Upon the final out, a ground ball to shortstop Jack Wilson, Duke pumped his fist and exchanged a hardy hug with Doumit.

"It was great, in front of a crowd like this, to have a good performance as a whole team, to play as crisply and sharply as we did," Duke said. "I'm just happy they can see the type of Baseball we're playing. It's a good brand of Baseball."

Asked to identify the difference he sees in Duke, who was 18-37 over the previous three seasons, manager John Russell said: "A sense of purpose."

For one thing, Duke appears to have taken a cue from staff ace Paul Maholm and improved his conditioning. His arm strength, obviously, is good.

A little offensive support never hurts, either.

The Pirates sent 10 men to the plate in a five-run third, highlighted by LaRoche's two-run homer. Leadoff man Nyjer Morgan ? who has added a serious shot of athleticism/enthusiasm to the lineup - drove in two runs, as did Doumit, who delivered a solo blast in the eighth.

Of course, it's hard to say whether this 4-3 start and all these encouraging signs represent legitimate hope or false hope.

But either one beats the heck out of no hope.

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 15, 2009

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