PITTSBURGH (AP) -- He was pitching at Class A Lynchburg at this time a year ago, so the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't ready to label rookie Zach Duke as their staff ace just yet.
At least not for another one or two starts.
After watching a string of seemingly can't-miss prospects struggle for them since their last winning season in 1992 -- Jason Schmidt and Kris Benson among them -- the Pirates understand they shouldn't get too excited about Duke too early.
That's proving difficult when a pitcher like Greg Maddux heaps praise upon Duke, who doesn't throw 95 miles an hour or possess a devastating, can't-hit-this pitch such as Mariano Rivera's cut fastball, yet seems to have everything it takes to be a big winner.
Duke's performance so far would excite any manager: a 2-0 record and 1.23 ERA in four starts, with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 22 innings. Duke threw eight shutout innings to beat Maddux and the Cubs 3-0 Saturday, and takes a 17-inning scoreless streak into his fourth career start tonight, against the Rockies.
"He's off to a wonderful start, and I've said time and time again I think he's going to be a wonderful pitcher for a long time," manager Lloyd McClendon said Wednesday. "But he will have times when he struggles and he has to keep an even keel."
So far, that seems to be the 22-year-old Duke's best quality: The poise and uncommon polish he possesses for a pitcher with only 79 games of pro experience, just 25 above Single-A. That's what Maddux saw as Duke repeatedly worked out of trouble Saturday, getting the Cubs to hit into four double-play grounders.
"I saw a good fastball, changeup and curveball," Maddux said. "Who cares about the other stuff? There's a lot of guys with poise who can't throw. He can throw."
What McClendon has seen: A left-hander who should keep winning if he can keep throwing the ball down in the strike zone, even if his fastball tops out in the 91- to 92-mph range.
Started year at Indianapolis
What is rapid is Duke's transition from prospect -- he was 12-3 earlier this season at Triple-A Indianapolis -- to a starting pitcher on a team that's looked everywhere for a No. 1 starter for years.
"It's just coming at me so fast, I'm trying to absorb it," Duke said. "I'm very happy with how it's gone, but there's always room for improvement."
But how does he improve on this? He hasn't allowed a run in either of his last two starts, shutting out the Phillies for seven innings July 7 as fans chanted "D-u-u-u-k-e, D-u-u-u-k-e" during his first start in Pittsburgh.
Duke, who has a 45-17 professional record, knows he might have a slight advantage now because he's seeing teams the first time around and they're unfamiliar with what he throws and his pitching pattern.
The test, he understands, will come when he sees the Cubs and Cardinals, Astros and Brewers for the second and third and fourth times.
"I'm learning so much, it's unreal. I don't know if I can soak it all in," said Duke, a 2001 20th-round draft choice from Clifton, Texas. "But I'm relatively unknown out there and they don't know what to expect. The next time they'll have a better game plan."
Taking a younger look
What the Pirates hope is Duke will make them better, too, and in a hurry. They're accelerating an already speedy transition to a younger team, surrounding Duke with a number of teammates who accompanied him up through the minors: center fielder Chris Duffy, catcher Ryan Doumit and right-hander Ian Snell.
Duffy, recalled from Triple-A only last week, had three multiple-hit games in the just-concluded four-game Astros series and likely will play regularly the second half of the season. Doumit is off to a slow start with a .195 average, but Tuesday he hit his first two career homers against Houston.
"We have confidence in each other and we've had success in the past. I think we're going to help each other every step of the way," Duke said. "I think we're ready -- and I think we're up to the task."