Duda's journey may result in pivotal role
Powerful prospect could play right field if Beltran misses time
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- What kept Lucas Duda sane last September were the regular conversations with his father, David, who offered a long-distance dose of California consolation. As Duda sank from a 1-for-10 slump to start his Major League career to a 1-for-20 funk, then ultimately to a 1-for-34 slide, David Duda reiterated the same message over and over again: "Just keep battling."
"That was basically the long and short of it," Lucas Duda said.
Whether it was his father's encouragement, his own adjustments or some other factor that helped him finish the season on a 16-for-50 tear, Duda cannot say for certain. All he knows is that the power numbers he amassed over the season's final two weeks -- four home runs, for starters -- gave him a critical dose of confidence heading into the winter. Those final weeks even nearly did the impossible, erasing memories of a slump that seemed "like the end of the world."
2010 Spring Training - New York Mets
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Considering the lack of confidence that Duda projects, there was genuine reason for concern. Though "hulking" might be the most accurate way to describe his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, Duda regularly shuffles around the clubhouse with his shoulders slumped and his eyes to the floor.
On a regular basis, Duda takes note of the fact that his spring locker stands opposite those of David Wright and Jose Reyes. Often, Duda cannot fathom that he is even in the same camp as such All-Stars.
But he is. And there's more.
If Carlos Beltran's balky knees continue to bother him this spring, he could begin the regular season on the disabled list. If that happens, it is equally possible that Duda could be the Opening Day right fielder in Flushing. Though Mets manager Terry Collins could platoon fourth and fifth outfielders Scott Hairston and Willie Harris in Beltran's absence, he is more likely to turn to Duda or Fernando Martinez for any extended length of time.
Considering Martinez's own injury-prone history and lack of sustained professional success, the better bet appears to be Duda.
"I'm hoping like mad that Carlos Beltran can be out there quite a bit," Collins said. "But if something happens, this guy has shown this spring that his bat's dangerous, so I need to find a place for him if that happens."
Already this spring, Duda has racked up a home run, three doubles and a .292 average in 27 at-bats, playing both the corner outfield spots and first base -- and all that after tallying 27 homers and a .287 average over three levels last summer. On Wednesday, he started in right field as a direct result of Beltran's latest setback.
But Duda, at least publicly, tries to block out the implications of Beltran's injuries, Martinez's checkered past with injuries or any other relevant factors. In some back quadrant of his mind, Duda still doesn't believe he belongs here at all, standing across the aisle from Reyes and Wright.
"I'm still kind of getting that through my head," he said. "It's just baseball. Play hard. Try not to think about it."
Don't, however, mistake shyness or modesty for a lack of intensity -- or personality, for that matter. His roommate at Double-A Binghamton last season, Mike Nickeas, recalled Duda introducing himself back in 2009 by telling Nickeas he was unmarried with two children. For two years, Duda kept up the ruse, before finally admitting that he was not, in fact, a father.
"That's kind of how he is," Nickeas said. "That's his sense of humor. I still laugh about it to this day, because he's got such a great straight face."
Some might say that's an important baseball trait. Driving balls all over the field in camp this spring, Duda carries the same slouched look he wore throughout his 1-for-34 funk last season. He is self-deprecating through the good times and the bad, the great and the terrible, slamming his forehead for every insignificant mistake.
But lately, such lapses have been rare, as Duda has thrived. Imagine that: A player who did not even register on most top prospect lists a year ago now ranks among the organization's brightest outfield hopes.
"It seemed like every time we had a guy on base that needed scoring, he was up there driving him in," Nickeas said of Duda's Minor League exploits last summer. "He's a clutch hitter. He's a hard-nosed player. I'd love to have him on my team anytime."