PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
The most indispensable Met says he intends to play 162 games this season (before reaching over to knock on the wooden wall of his locker). And that’s a number Lucas Duda probably never imagined previously.
Duda got to 153 two years ago, when he drilled 30 home runs, despite feeling worn down from the seven-month grind of his workaholic preparation. It began in spring training, when the 8 a.m. cage sessions began a Groundhog Day routine of meetings, workouts, more BP, extra fielding and maybe even more tee-and-toss if his swing didn’t feel quite right.
In trying to solidify a foothold in the majors, Duda knew of no other way. But in addition to his freakish power, he got stuck with a reputation of being streaky — which can double as a euphemism for inconsistent.
Now 30, with a half-dozen years under his belt, he believes his practice obsession, and the toll it took, may have contributed to the wild swings in his production. And he’s not alone in that.
“He says he hasn’t felt this good in a long time,” Terry Collins said. “You know why? He backed off some of the offseason workout stuff. He’s in great shape. He’s even lost some weight. But as I told him, one thing we don’t need is the fatigue setting in because of all the hard work. He told me he’s on board, he’s tired of being sore and beat up in the middle of the season.”
The Mets need Duda intact to defend their National League crown, more than they have let on, with their strategy of backing him up with Wilmer Flores or sticking a first baseman’s mitt on one of their catchers, the latter an experiment rather than a contingency plan. In addition to being the only legit first baseman on the roster, Duda provides power from the left side, and there’s no replacement for that if he’s out for a prolonged period of time.
Duda doesn’t get the attention of Yoenis Cespedes, who already has rock-star status on the Mets. But in the post-PED boom, his numbers aren’t easy to come by. Last season, only nine NL hitters had more than Duda’s 27 homers. In 2014, only Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo went deep more than Duda, who calls pitcher-friendly Citi Field home.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to put up those kind of power numbers in our park over the past few years,” David Wright said. “He kind of flies under the radar because he’s quiet and doesn’t say things that generate headlines. But he’s given us something we haven’t really had in previous years.”
Wright, like Collins, is pleased to see that Duda has cut back and also thinks it will be to his long-term benefit. As the captain said, becoming confident enough to trust in one’s ability rather than constantly freaking out over slight imperfections is a process for a young player.
“I’m always working to get better,” Duda said. “I’ll never stop doing that. I’m just doing it smarter.”
Wright recalled how Duda used to rush to the indoor cages during the season if his swing wasn’t quite right. After a while, all those practice hacks add up and the sheer quantity cancels out the quality. There’s little doubt it was a contributing factor to the back issues that sidelined Duda from time to time, and if he tried to push his way through the discomfort, it was a textbook way to develop bad habits by trying to compensate at the plate.
For all the upgrades in the middle infield, with the addition of switch hitters Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera, making sure Duda stays anchored at first base is critical for the Mets. They no longer have Daniel Murphy to back up Duda, and if they need to lean on Flores at first, it will weaken the Mets’ depth at the other spots, including third base, where Wright is going to need regular rest to manage his spinal stenosis.
There’s no substitute for the deep threat provided by Duda, who now sounds better equipped to handle the long season — and more focused on doing damage to opponents rather than himself.
Most home runs hit by major-league first basemen in 2015:
Chris Davis, Balt. 35
Paul Goldschmidt, Ariz. 33
Anthony Rizzo, CHC 31
Mark Teixeira, Yankees 30
Joey Votto, Cin. 29
Adrian Gonzalez, LAD 28
Lucas Duda, Mets 27