BOWIE, Md. -- Many comparisons can be made between the two best teams in Curve history -- this year and 2004 -- and one of them is a discussion about the best starting pitcher ever to wear an Altoona uniform.
Zach Duke, who was nearly untouchable six years ago in posting a 1.58 ERA, has long been the answer to that question.
Mirror photo by Cory Giger
Rudy Owens pitched six shutout innings Tuesday and has an 0.98 ERA in his past eight starts.
The distinction now belongs to Rudy Owens.
This has nothing to do with major league success, or in Duke's case, lack thereof. And there's no guarantee Owens will ever be a big league standout.
This is about Double-A performance. And after watching Owens dominate Eastern League hitters for the past six weeks, it would be stunning if he doesn't develop into a cornerstone pitcher for the Pirates.
"He's going to be a good big leaguer," Curve pitching coach Tom Filer predicted during Tuesday's division-clinching celebration.
Owens is the best starter in the EL this season, and it's absurd that he was overlooked in favor of New Hampshire's Kyle Drabek for the Pitcher of the Year award. Did anyone who voted bother to check the statistics, which show the Curve lefty to be ahead of the pitcher with the famous last name in most important categories?
"If I got my own vote, Rudy would be Pitcher of the Year," Filer said. "He's been outstanding from the very beginning. He's just been very consistent."
And as of late, he's been downright filthy.
The 22-year-old lefty has an 0.98 ERA in his past eight starts, including six terrific innings Tuesday night in a 9-1 win over Bowie. He blanked the Baysox on four hits and struck out nine with no walks.
"Does he throw anything but first-pitch strikes? And second-pitch strikes?" a man in the press box asked rhetorically.
Owens is indeed a strike-throwing machine. He has 132 strikeouts to only 23 walks this season (a 5.7 to 1 ratio), and in his past eight starts he has 48 strikeouts and only four walks.
His performance Tuesday lowered his league-leading ERA to 2.46 in 26 starts, compared to Drabek's 2.89 ERA in the same number of outings. Owens has more strikeouts (132 to 127) in fewer innings (150 to 159), far fewer walks (23 to 67) and a much better walks and hits per innings pitched number (0.98 to 1.19) than Drabek.
So he's clearly the best pitcher in the Eastern League.
But the best in Curve history?
Duke went 5-1 with the great 1.58 ERA in 2004, but he started only nine games and pitched 51 1/3 innings. There's a good chance the league would have caught up to him a bit had he been around longer.
While Duke was masterful at pitching out of trouble, Owens seldom even gets into jams.
He faced one rough spell this season, giving up five runs on 13 hits in 4 1/3 innings against Binghamton on July 7 and then allowing two runs in one inning at the Eastern League All-Star Game.
"That definitely was a turning point," Owens said. "Giving up the 13 hits and five runs against Binghamton and the All-Star Game and giving up two runs, I just said to myself I don't want to do it again."
And he hasn't.
"One of the things that's happened is his breaking ball has gotten so much better, and his changeup is better," Filer said.
There's no telling how good Owens will or will not be in the major leagues. But that's not the discussion here.
While wearing a Curve uniform, there's never been anyone better.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.