Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 2/29/12
By Mark Mitchell Special to FOXSportsHouston.com Spring training is about renewal and hope, or at least that is what Zach Duke is seeking. Signed to a minor league contract, the former All-Star is looking to regain his prior form and experience another unlikly playoff run. Spring dreaming? Yes, but it could happen. Really, it has before. True, the Astros finished 40 games out of first place last year, but Duke experienced a worst-to-first resurgence firsthand last year with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Realistically, Duke knows the odds are much better that he will make the Astros by producing similar results to the first six seasons of his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded for a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks in 2011. His best season came in 2009 when he went 11-16 and was named to the All-Star team as an injury replacement. In 1,041 career innings, the Texas native has a 4.56 ERA and a record of 48-74. "It was all about the opportunity to reestablish my career," said Duke, who signed with the Astros over several other clubs. "The last couple of years have been a roller coaster for me." A broken hand in spring training set the tone for a disappointing stint with the Diamondbacks. While playing on a team that went from last place in 2010 to wining the division last year was a "great learning experience," the early injury set him back six weeks and he never regained arm strength. Worse, a control pitcher, he lost command of his pitches. This spring, both are back. "He has looked really good," said Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail. "He knows in the past he was a strike thrower and he has struggled, but we are getting him back to throwing strikes and have the opportunity to help this club." Brocail and Duke studied the lefthander's form from 2009 and made a slight tweak in his delivery. "We have moved him over just a hair to get him on the plane of the plate," explained Brocail, "We have him in the strike zone and he hasn't left it." While manager Brad Mills indicated he is very much in the competition for a starting spot, Duke knows pitching out the bullpen is an option. Mills indicated Duke will be the second pitcher to see action in Monday's Grapefruit League action against the Atlanta Braves, and the next appearance will start a game. Duke merely wants the opportunity to be an Astro. He sees similarities between this year's team and the 2011 Diamondbacks. Besides the abundance of newly infused talent, there is the same positive vibe in the clubhouse. "You see a lot of new faces, guys that weren't involved with the bad season last year," said Duke, who resides in Fort Worth. "They are not familiar with the negative connotations that were associated with the team last year. Guys are coming in with a fresh attitude and the will to win, and that is what it takes." Jordan Lyles has been targeted to start the Astros third game of the Grapefruit League season on Monday against the Atlanta Braves at The Astros Osceola County Stadium complex. Livan Hernandez will start the home opener on March 4 against the Washington Nationals, while J.A. Happ will get the nod the following day on the road against the Nationals.
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