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'Duke' returns to Midsummer Classic

'Duke' returns to Midsummer Classic

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NEW YORK -- If A's right-hander Justin Duchscherer was not such a quietly confident man, his first All-Star experience, in Detroit in 2005, might have given him something of an inferiority complex.

"Last time I was a middle reliever," Duchscherer said Monday in a media-swarmed ballroom at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Manhattan. "And I think a lot of people were kind of wondering, 'Who is this guy?' People were asking me if I thought I belonged."

When he stepped into the American League clubhouse at Comerica Park that year, however, he knew that he did belong.

"I looked around at the other relievers on the team and felt pretty good," he said. "My numbers were as good, if not better, than just about everyone in there. I didn't have the saves, but that wasn't my fault. I was the only reliever who wasn't a closer."

In fact, Duchscherer's pre-All-Star break ERA that year as Oakland's setup man -- 1.49 in 35 games -- was better than every AL reliever in the room but one: Mariano Rivera of the Yankees (1.01).

Duchscherer, 30, is now on his second AL All-Star team in his first year as a big-league starter, having finally convinced the A's to move him into their rotation after four years of exclusive bullpen work.

And having made All-Star teams as a reliever and as a starter, he's in elite company. Only a handful of hurlers have pulled off such a Midsummer Classic combo, and the list includes Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, 2008 Cooperstown inductee Goose Gossage and future likely HOFer John Smoltz.

"I was a starter for seven years in the Minors, and I've always wanted to do it in the big leagues, so for me the transition from starting to relieving was actually more difficult than it was to go from relieving to starting," Duchscherer explained. "But I really think all those years in the bullpen made me a better starter, because of the experience it gave me in getting out of jams. Now it's my own jams that I have to get out of, but a jam is a jam, and in all that time in the bullpen, that's all I did -- get out of jams.

"So when I get into one as a starter, I just kind of revert back to my days as a reliever."

That ability to flip-flop mindsets on the mound is paying off in a huge way. And this time, when Duchscherer -- he's known as "The Duke" in Oakland -- settles into the home clubhouse this week for the 79th All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, he won't see a single peer with a better ERA.

In his first start after being named to the 2008 All-Star squad by AL manager Terry Francona, The Duke threw his first career shutout, a two-hitter against the visiting Mariners. He was nearly as good in his final first-half start, holding the AL West-leading Angels to two runs on five hits over 7 2/3 innings Sunday before a blown save cost him what would have been his 11th win of the season.

As a result of those gems, his 1.82 ERA over 16 starts is the lowest not just among AL starters, but among every starter in the Majors.

"I feel like people consider me to be a little more deserving this time," he said. "I don't, but it's nice that other people do. I'm just glad I pitched well after I got named to the team. I really wanted to get here with some respectable numbers."

Duchscherer (10-5) had to duck out of Monday's media-availability session after about 15 minutes because he's been battling flu-like symptoms, but he's hoping to talk Francona into letting him work an inning of Tuesday. The Duke didn't get to pitch as a first-time All-Star in Detroit.

"I've been feeling pretty crappy for about five or six days, and yesterday just killed me," he said of his Sunday start. "But I'm going to go to the park later, talk to the doctors there and see if they can help me out with something.

"Last All-Star game at Yankee Stadium? I'd really like to get out there."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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