JUPITER, Fla. -- Lucas Duda still shies away from eye contact, usually staring deep into the recesses of his locker as he speaks. Even with his newfound celebrity, Duda is not quite comfortable talking about himself or about others. Or about anything, really.
"I used to try to talk his ear off, and he would just give me nods," catcher Mike Nickeas said. "For the first little while, it was like I was trying to have a conversation with myself."
Life is spartan in that sense for Duda, the 26-year-old right fielder for the Mets. Duda does not want to talk about baseball -- he wants to play it. Duda does not want to talk about home runs -- he wants to hit them.
To date, he has done that significantly better than anyone wearing blue and orange, launching four homers in 44 spring at-bats. No one else on the team has hit more than one, with the 13 other hitters left in camp combining for a total of five.
Duda's spring slugging percentage of .682 is, by far, the best on the team. His on-base mark of .426 is also tops, and there is evidence that those statistics are more than mere Grapefruit League mirages. After taking over for Carlos Beltran as the Mets' full-time right fielder last season, Duda ranked in the Top 20 in the National League in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, home runs and RBIs through the end of the year. None of those numbers were out of line with the track record that Duda established in the Minor Leagues, beginning with his breakout season in 2010.
Outside of Johan Santana, in fact, no one in Mets camp has produced more optimism on a daily basis this spring than Duda. His batting-practice sessions are spectacles, with Duda sometimes launching a dozen or more home runs to all parts of the ballpark. Manager Terry Collins -- who christened Duda, "the Big Ox," last season and refers in gushing terms to his raw power -- considers him a lock to hit 20-plus homers. Given the new, smaller dimensions at Citi Field, fantasy-baseball pundits across the country consider Duda one of the game's foremost sleepers.
Seemingly, the only person without expectations for this season is the Ox himself.
"I don't really have any," Duda said. "I'm just trying to play a role that's going to help the team win, whatever it may be -- whether it's playing right field every day or coming off the bench -- whatever the role that I'm in. I'm trying to help the team win any way I can."
For a long while, there was concern that such modesty -- Coming off the bench? Really? -- might ultimately be Duda's undoing. When he first came to the Mets in late 2010, Duda was so timid in the clubhouse that the Mets believed it might stunt his development, if not his entire career.
Now, a year and a half later, nothing of the sort has happened. Duda may spend his entire tenure in Flushing as the least outgoing player on the roster, but that clearly is not going to affect his performance at the plate. Nor is the perception of Duda as a committed introvert entirely accurate.
Teammates describe him as funny, if not downright entertaining. Though Duda is often the butt of friendly jokes at camp, his own dry sense of humor has caught several teammates by surprise. After first meeting him in the Minor Leagues and attempting to pry some personal information from him, Nickeas recalls believing for a month that his teammate was the father of two children. Duda, as a joke, had contrived that story on the spot.
"It just takes time with him," Nickeas said. "With him, it's just continually making an effort, and he eventually opens up."
If there is a stumbling block that might prevent Duda from becoming a productive everyday player, it is not his glove but his defense. Defensively inadequate over half a season at Citi Field last year, the natural first baseman must improve in the outfield if he is to stick in the big leagues. To that end, Duda has worked daily with first-base coach Tom Goodwin this spring, trying to improve his range, his footwork, his angles to balls.
The end result is a player who, despite outward appearances, is "actually really excited" for the season.
"I try not to buy into what people say or what the media says, or whatever," Duda said. "My purpose here is just to help the team win."
That means hitting more than talking, even if Duda has grown confident with both.
"He's comfortable being here," Nickeas said. "Now that he knows the guys, it's much easier for him to be out on the field. ... It's much easier for him to enjoy the process, too."