A year ago this month, Zach Duke had reached the lowest depths of his career. The Houston Astros, a team that would go on to lose a major league-worst 107 games last season, cut him the last week of spring training. The left-handed pitcher had allowed 18 runs in 141 / 3 spring innings. He felt uncomfortable on the mound; the arm and delivery that made him an all-star three years prior were gone. Nothing worked. “Is my career at the end?” he asked.

March 27, 2012, the day the Astros released him, Duke searched for help. He called two people he knew in the Washington Nationals organization, a team in search of starting pitching depth. By the next day, he had a minor league deal in place to be a starter at Class AAA Syracuse. He obtained copies of his best season, his rookie year in 2005, and pored over his old mechanics.