It was about this time last season everything changed for Zach Duke.
Last season, he struggled in Houston Astros camp and was eventually released. Two days later, he was picked up by the Nationals.
After battling to regain his consistency and break on his best pitches, he worked his way back to the majors.
Oh, he did work all right.
Duke went 15-5 with a 3.51 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse. The left-hander made 26 starts, and had two complete games and a shutout over 164 1/3 innings. He had 91 strikeouts and only 39 walks. From July 4 through Aug. 29, he was 6-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 10 starts.
“It is amazing what a difference a year makes,” Duke said. “I am very fortunate and blessed to be in the situation I am in. I went through the entire offseason and into spring training determined to capitalize on the situation and give it everything I have got.”
He did just that.
In his late-season move to the Nationals, Duke continued to deliver. He went 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA in eight games over 13 2/3 innings, allowing just two earned runs, striking out 10 and walking four.
Now, with the exit of several left-handers from the Nationals bullpen, Duke takes center stage as the most-tenured southpaw reliever.
But what happened after 2011? How did his delivery get messed up? What happened to the patented breaking ball that made him an All-Star in 2009 with Pittsburgh?
“I lost my delivery a bit,” Duke said. “Because of that, my stuff suffered. I lost life on my fastball. I lost break on my breaking balls and it really became extremely hittable. I had to figure out how to get back to the delivery that made me successful, a delivery that gave me more deception and life on the ball.”
“I got with (pitching coordinator) Spin Williams early and then worked with (Syracuse pitching coach) Greg Booker all through the year. We really had a good work plan. It just clicked for me in May. I stayed locked into it for the rest of the season and into the offseason.”
Duke said Booker was able to break down his delivery from a different perspective and that made him realize what was going wrong.
“He likes to say he works on your delivery from reverse order,” Duke said. “So the main thing for him is he looks at it where your hand is at when you release the ball and works backwards from there. For me, I identified a couple of things in my delivery that allowed me to get my hand out there and have maximum hand speed when the ball was still in my hand. We focused on those couple of things and repeated and repeated and repeated. And finally it stuck in.”
It wasn’t just the coaching staff that helped Duke last season.
While with Syracuse, Duke spent a lot of time with fellow pitchers John Lannan, Jeff Mandel and Tanner Roark. They would help one another with subtle tweaks or adjustments to their deliveries. Duke would pick up on the suggestions and try to implement them.
“Sometimes I can see if they changed something in their delivery or mechanics and I can say something to them,” Duke said. “They know it is coming from a good place. I think once you get to the major league level, you can learn from anybody and everybody.
“It doesn’t matter if they are a 10-year vet or a rookie. If they got something you can learn from, you would be a fool not to heed their advice. Anytime you are trying to do special things like we are here, trying to win pennants and the World Series, the only way you are going to be able to do that is if everyone is helping each other and pulling for each other.”
With Duke on the mound this spring, you can see a little bit of his personality come out with the locks of hair protruding from the back of his cap. Is his hair going to take on a life of its own like Jayson Werth or Danny Espinosa’s beards?
“It is something I tried last year,” Duke laughed. “I didn’t cut my hair from about February on until the end of the baseball season. I cut it for the first time in November. I was more lazy than anything. We will see if it sticks around. It is getting a little thin in the front. If it gets any more thin in the front, I will have to cut it.”
Duke has not played for too many teams that have the talent he sees on the field with this version of the Nationals. He said his Pirates teams struggled and the 2011 Diamondbacks were pretty good, but nothing like today’s Nationals.
“The team we have here is pretty special,” Duke said. “You look at the pitchers we have here and they throw fireballs. We have seven or eight hitters in the lineup that put up double-digit homers. It is a very loaded team and very balanced. It is going to be a fun year. We have to make sure we focus on each game, doing whatever we can to win that day, and then we will look back on the course of the season we will be really happy with it.”