Tracy tabs Duke to start Opening Day

Tracy tabs Duke to start opener

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Manager Jim Tracy had two capable young arms in left-hander Zach Duke and right-hander Ian Snell to pick from as his Opening Day starter, and Tracy announced Thursday which of the two he picked.

In a move that served as his endorsement of both, Tracy chose Duke to start the first game of the season in Houston on April 2, and Snell to start the first game at PNC Park against the Cardinals on April 9.

"It's evident that these two guys are at the top of the rotation," Tracy said. "I've been thinking about this for a while now. A year ago, I didn't feel, at this early a juncture, we were in a position to make a decision. We had a lot going on."

But in a year, Tracy has resolved some of that uncertainty, and his being able to watch Duke and Snell blossom has helped. Both have been effective in Spring Training and in their Grapefruit League outings so far, performances that continued the solid work they did in the latter portion of the 2006 season.

Tracy had hinted a day earlier that Duke or Snell would be his likely choice for the game in Houston. Both of them worked Wednesday in a 3-2 win over the Red Sox.

In picking the 23-year-old Duke, Tracy was rewarding Duke for a body of work that has earned him solid reviews. In his first full season in the bigs last year, Duke emerged as the workhorse of the Pirates pitching staff. He won 10 games, and he led the staff in innings pitched (215 1/3) and in starts (34).

"The goal is to be the premier guy," Duke said. "That should be everybody's goal -- to be the guy that's counted on every single time you go out there.

"That's kinda the way we're feeling with myself and Snell right now. It's a great honor."

Duke said Tracy told him Wednesday morning that he would get the Opening Day nod, but he couldn't disclose it because Tracy wanted to explain his decision to others on the staff. He didn't want the media to disclose the news first.

Yet, now that he could talk about the decision, the 23-year-old Duke was happy to share his thoughts. He said he had a hard time sleeping Wednesday night as the thought and the excitement of Opening Day kept him tossing and turning.

For him, this Opening Day assignment is even more special, because he'll be pitching in his native Texas.

"It's especially big," he said. "It's Opening Day in Houston, and I know I'm going to have a lot of friends and family there. It's going to be a very special time."

He said he appreciated Tracy's confidence in him, and he liked even more the fact that Tracy made the decision weeks in advance. It'll allow Duke to shake any jitters and not, as he put it, "psyche" himself out.

"I can focus on it," Duke said. "But it's just the first game of the season, you know, and I can't put too much emphasis on it."

Tracy agreed.

"You want to get things like that out of the way, in my opinion, as quickly as possible, because I think it's very important that everybody realizes the ground they're standing on," he said. "The sooner you have the information available to you, the sooner you can move forward with things like that.

"I think it's better for everyone involved."

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