BRADENTON — Whenever talk swirls around his pitching staff, John Russell isn’t one to ditch the past.
The Pittsburgh Pirates manager doesn’t want to dwell on the pitching woes that helped sink the team’s 2008 season — but he doesn’t want to forget about them, either.
Zach Duke feels the same way.
“I took last season,” he said, “pretty personally.”
The lefty tossed two scoreless innings during the Pirates’ 2-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Monday at McKechnie Field, meaning none of last year’s core starters — Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Duke — have allowed an earned run in eight innings this spring.
It’s a small sample — but it’s also a sign the staff is desperate to prove 2008 was an exception.
“I feel like we all have just looked in the mirror,” Duke said, “and decided it’s our time to make things happen.”
Duke, Gorzelanny, Maholm and Snell are all homegrown draft picks under the age of 28, and the organization has been waiting on them to blossom.
Thus far, the waiting has been the hardest part. All four have tasted success individually but haven’t yet gelled as a staff. Last year, they bottomed out — the Pirates were last in the National League in ERA (5.10), hits allowed per game (10.1) and runs allowed per game (5.46).
No Pirates pitcher won 10 games, and the only pitcher on the staff to make 21 starts and post an ERA under 4.00 was Maholm (3.71).
Maholm also went 9-9, prompting the Pirates to give him a three-year contract, as well as a spot in the ’09 rotation.
Duke, Snell and Gorzelanny were told they had to earn theirs.
“There’s a lot of guys nipping at our heels,” said Duke, who went 5-14 with a 4.82 ERA last year. “We like our jobs. We realize we have to step up our performance a bit to keep our jobs, and I think that’s definitely a good thing.”
Gorzelanny reported to spring training 20 pounds lighter, while Duke worked with a personal trainer for the first time in his career.
Consequently, Russell sees a difference in his starters.
“With what we went through last year, there had better be a difference in how they approach things, and I think they’ve shown that,” he said. “There’s a little more sense of urgency, they’re more committed to doing things.
“They know what’s at stake. ... Yeah, there’s a big difference this year.”
They have the tools, according to Joe Kerrigan, the club’s new pitching coach.
“I watched video for a week, and the first note that I made was the deliveries that I see don’t match the numbers,” he said. “I see good deliveries, I see no major projects. ... We have a good foundation of deliveries here, so there’s really no major projects to tear down or rebuild, which is great, because usually, you have one or two of those every spring training.”
The Tampa Bay Rays visit McKechnie Field on Friday, fresh off a 2008 season where they made a stunning and stirring run all the way to the World Series.
Their biggest strength was a young starting rotation riddled with homegrown talent.
“Over the past few years, we kind of thought we were headed in that direction,” Duke said. “There’s just a maturity that goes along with being in the major leagues for a few years. You lose the glamour of it all and realize this is a job and I have to perform, and it’s up to me to make sure that I still keep my job.
“In order for us to have a season like the Rays, we have to step it up ourselves. And we’re willing to do that.”