'They've seen it, babe': Honest assessment by wife helps Twins pitcher Duke return to bigs

Usually it's the hitters that will tell a pitcher when he's finished. For Twins left-hander Zach Duke, it was his wife.This was back in the summer of 2013, and Duke, a key part of the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation from 2005-10, was desperately tryi...
St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Zach Duke (29) waits on the mound to be removed from an Aug. 24 game by manager Mike Matheny in St. Louis. Jeff Curry / USA TODAY Sports

Usually it's the hitters that will tell a pitcher when he's finished. For Twins left-hander Zach Duke, it was his wife.

This was back in the summer of 2013, and Duke, a key part of the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation from 2005-10, was desperately trying to make it back to the majors as a 30-year-old starter. After Duke and his 8.71 earned-run average were released that June by the Washington Nationals, he found himself in Triple-A with the Louisville Bats.

It was the former Kristin Gross who gave her husband an invaluable dose of tough love.

"She kind of had to beat it through my head that I was done as a starter," said Duke, who signed a one-year deal in late December and reports to his first spring training camp with the Twins on Tuesday. "My wife just kind of said, 'Listen, nobody is interested in you as a starter anymore. They've seen it, babe. There's nothing changing. They know what they're going to get as a starter, and nobody wants it anymore.' "

As hard as it was for Duke to hear those words, deep down he knew his wife was right. It helped that she had been around the game for years; the couple met in 2005 at Triple-A Indianapolis, where she was working as an in-stadium emcee.

Initially, however, the denial phase lingered.

"But babe, I was good once!" Duke insisted.

"Yeah, that was a long time ago," his wife replied.

Almost a decade earlier, the 20th-round draft pick in 2001 out of Waco, Texas, had risen to No. 1 prospect status for the Pirates, according to Baseball America. His change-up and control were considered the best in the Pirates' system, and by the time he and Kristin met he was rated the No. 3 prospect in the International League by opposing managers.

What followed was quite the comeuppance for Duke. He went 45-70 with a 4.54 ERA for a series of dreadful Pirates teams, who never finished higher than fifth in the National League Central and were a combined 159 1/2 games out of first place in that six-year span.

His wife's words bouncing around his brain, Duke wisely made a mid-career transition. Not only did he embrace a bullpen role, he added a lower arm slot to make same-sided batters a little less comfortable.

After 2 1/2 months in oblivion, Duke worked his way back to the majors on the strength of a 1.30 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 28 innings for the Bats. The Reds called him up at the end of August, and he never looked back.

Other than nine rehab outings for the St. Louis Cardinals last summer after racing back from Tommy John surgery in a near-modern record 9 1/2 months, Duke has remained exclusively in the majors. By the end of this season, he will have surpassed $30 million in career earnings.

"I finally took an honest look in the mirror," he said, thinking back to his wife's pep talk. "I agreed. She was right: 'If a major league team is going to want me, I'm going to have to do something different.' I went to the bullpen and added another arm slot, and sure enough, two weeks after that I was back in the big leagues."

In November the couple celebrated their 10-year anniversary. Christmas Day brought a fresh round of excitement for the Dukes and their three young children as word leaked out via KFAN that the veteran reliever had signed a big-league deal with the Twins.

It carries a $2.15 million guarantee with the chance to earn another $1.5 million in performance bonuses.

"The deal was in place a couple days before," Duke said. "We kept it under wraps until then, but Christmas Day it got out there, and of course I was getting texts from everybody on their turkey coma, sitting back there. I was doing the same thing as I'm reading it."

Born on the same day as Twins franchise first baseman Joe Mauer - April 19, 1983 - Duke joins Fernando Rodney, who turns 41 in March and Addison Reed, 29, among proven relief options that signed affordable free-agent deals with the Twins this winter.

"When you talk to teammates and people who have been around him otherwise, this is a very high-quality, high-character guy who shows leadership and who cares," Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said. "He wants to keep pitching, wants to impact and wants to be in the right situation with a chance to win. He had other opportunities. We weren't the only team."

Before signing with his eighth different organization, Duke did plenty of research. Former Twins closer Matt Capps, who served as the best man in Duke's wedding, no doubt was among those filling him in on the family-friendly Twin Cities vibe.

"When I started examining rosters and examining the way teams were put together and atmospheres and talked to people that I knew that had been in certain places, the Twins just made sense," Duke said. "It's a young team with a lot of energy. They're fun to watch."

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