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Mets' Lucas Duda grows into role as power-hitting first baseman

Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets

Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets rounds first after hitting a two-run homer in the sixth inning of a game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on Sept. 19, 2014 in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The dreams began long before a middle school growth spurt turned Lucas Duda into a long, lanky, uncoordinated jumble of limbs. They came to him starting in the second grade, maybe the third -- well before he took on the dimensions of a stackable washer and dryer.

Duda first envisioned himself not as a burly, bearded, bomb-blasting first baseman but as a slick-fielding, sure-handed shortstop who sprinted around the bases far more often than he jogged around them.

"Actually, I used to be fast,'' said Duda, the hulking figure who anchors the heart of the Mets' lineup. "Believe it or not.''

Hard to believe, too, is the vision that has become Duda's new reality. Only 11 big-leaguers hit at least 30 home runs last season, an exclusive club that Duda crashed with No. 30 in the final at-bat of his finest season.

Now, after his breakout season, the Mets see Duda as a power bat to solidify the middle of a lineup that could use a command performance.

"It's as good a power as I've seen from anybody and I've been around a long time,'' first-year Mets hitting coach Kevin Long said. "It ranks up there near the top for sure.''

The organization is willing to bet that power display wasn't a fluke. Though Duda won't be a free agent until the 2018 season -- and the Mets could easily adopt a wait-and-see-approach -- the sides have been discussing a contract extension.

If the ascent continues, a new deal would mean a discount in the long term for the Mets and the stability of guaranteed dollars for Duda.

It's a far different conversation from the one that hovered over Duda a year ago, when the Mets found themselves choosing between him and fellow first baseman Ike Davis.

The Mets chose Duda, preferring to give him a shot to play first base after failed attempts to use him in the outfield. With Davis traded away, Duda thrived and became one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League.

"Things could have gone differently for sure,'' said Duda, who led the Mets in homers and RBIs (92). "But it really never crossed my mind that maybe I could have been traded or moved back to the outfield, or whatever the situation might have been.''

Duda, 29, hit just .180 against lefthanders last season, but under Long's tutelage in spring training. he showed signs of improvement. The results have been encouraging enough for manager Terry Collins to plan on starting Duda against lefties.

To Long, Duda has the tools to avoid playing in a platoon.

"He's thoroughly impressive,'' Long said. "The things he can do with the bat are impressive. He's got a good swing, it's compact, it's explosive, there's a lot of power in there and his ability to hit is high too.''

While Duda's confidence once was thought to be an issue -- Collins hesitated to put the slugger in the cleanup spot last season -- Duda said he has "absolutely'' embraced the expectations he faces now.

"It's not a hesitance or a nervousness,'' he said. "It's a 'want' now. You've done it, now do it again.''

Perhaps more than anything else, last season's success provided validation for Duda, who faced criticism in the past for a disciplined plate approach that some believed was too passive.

"I can't alter my approach or who I am as a player,'' Duda said. "I'm not going to go steal 30 bags. I'm not going to do that. As you get to play a little longer, you know yourself better and you formulate your approach and plan from there. That's really it.''

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