CINCINNATI -- Zach Duke, acquired by the Cardinals in a Sunday swap with the White Sox, joined his new team Tuesday in Cincinnati, a place where, fittingly enough, he once resurrected a flailing career and reinvented himself into an effective late-inning reliever.
Duke had just been released by the Nationals after an unsuccessful try to fit as a long reliever when he signed a Minor League deal with the Reds in June 2013. He reported to Triple-A Louisville, where, with nothing to lose, he decided to experiment with something new. Recalling those days as a boy when he would skip rocks sidearm on the family farm, Duke toyed with a sidearm slot while throwing a bullpen session.
He peeked over to Ted Power -- then the Louisville pitching coach, now an assistant pitching coach for the Reds -- for affirmation.
"You should probably take that into the game tonight," Power said.
Duke did, had immediate success, and by the end of August was back in a big league uniform. He allowed one run in 14 appearances down the stretch and parlayed that into an opportunity with the Brewers the next year. That 2014 season became a breakout one for Duke, who posted a 2.45 ERA in 74 games while varying his arm angles from one pitch to the next and adding a cutter to his repertoire.
It's the sort of deception he still deploys today as he enjoys the security of a three-year, $15 million deal signed after 2014.
"I've learned a lot of tricks," Duke said on Tuesday. "Pretty much, you name a trick a pitcher can do, and I've got it in my bag. I feel like, as a bullpen guy, I'm almost a better pitcher because I have more things for the hitter to think about at any given time. It's tougher to formulate a game plan against me now.
"I think that's really what turned the page for me and started my second career, as I say. I was a starter in my first career, and now this is my second one, and for whatever reason, the second one has been better."
The Cardinals plan to use Duke in a setup role to free some of the burden from Kevin Siegrist and Jonathan Broxton. Though Duke had made an American League-most 53 appearances at the time of the trade, his innings count (37 2/3) reflect moderate wear on his arm.
He made his Cardinals debut in Tuesday's 7-5 loss to the Reds, allowing a single and two walks while striking out one in two-thirds of an inning.
The 12-year veteran has never pitched in the postseason, which is why Duke described it as a "joy" to join the Cardinals in a pennant race. The timing worked out, too, as the team's off-day on Monday allowed Duke to make an unexpected trip back to his home in Nashville so that he could drop his oldest daughter, Madison, off at school for her first day of kindergarten.
Duke then boarded a flight to Cincinnati on Tuesday morning.
As he noted upon arriving: "It worked out perfect."