MILWAUKEE -- Early last year, left-hander Zach Duke couldn't find his niche with the Nationals. He was the only lefty in the bullpen and hardly used. When Duke was used -- mostly as a long reliever -- he was hit hard.
The Nationals released Duke on June 10, 2013. Duke said he was surprised that he wasn't used that much while in a Nationals uniform.
"I was told coming out of Spring Training that I was going to be the lefty match-up guy ... if a starter went down I could get some innings," Duke said. "It turned out I was never really used for lefty situations. It was really tough to stay sharp. I've never been a long man before. I really don't have any interest of doing it again. It's a tough position. To me, it's the toughest."
Then his career turned around for the better after he signed a Minor League deal with the Reds four days after his release from the Nationals. He changed his mechanics, starting throwing sidearm and became more consistent on the mound. It also helped that Duke was getting words of encouragement from Triple A Louisville manager Jim Riggleman, and later from then-Reds manager Dusty Baker. Duke's talks with Riggleman and Baker convinced Duke to continue his Major League career.
Good thing Duke did, for he is one of the reasons the Brewers are in first place in the National League Central. Duke is currently a lefty specialist, and he entered Tuesday with a 1.53 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.
"I'm giving hitters something to think about. It made things that much better," Duke said. "I've always felt I could contribute to a winning team. Unfortunately with the Nationals, there weren't a lot of opportunities to help that team.
"[With the Brewers], I feel like anytime I come in, it's a close game. I have things on my shoulders and I love those situations."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.