(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. Adds photo. With AP Photos.)By KYLE HIGHTOWERAssociated Press
New York Mets outfielder Lucas Duda admits he was a little intimidated last year when he was called up to the big leagues.
He did fine at Triple-A Buffalo, hitting .302 with 10 home runs and 24 RBI in just 38 games. But he struggled in the majors when he got tapped in April for an eight-game call-up to fill in for injured left fielder Jason Bay.
”I think everybody lacks confidence when they come up to the big leagues,” Duda said. ”Then you kind of get used to it. You get rolling, you get a few base hits and you feel great. You grow and build on it.”
Duda found that groove by the time he returned to the big leagues last June and finished the season on tear, hitting all 10 of his home runs in those final 64 games to go along with 14 doubles.
So far this spring he resembles the guy that concluded the season so strong. He has wowed both the coaching staff and onlookers during batting practice sessions, driving balls that would be long past the reconfigured fences at Citi Field.
Mets manager Terry Collins has been so impressed by what he’s seen that virtually every version of the lineup he’s drawn up so far includes Duda’s left-handed bat in the heart of the order, right alongside those of first baseman Ike Davis and Bay.
The possibilities are endless for Collins, who is aiming to make it as tough as possible on opposing pitching staffs.
”Do you hit these guys back-to-back, where one can protect the other against certain clubs that don’t have a big, effective lefty? Do you slip Jason Bay in the middle of it? What’s the most comfortable?” Collins said he’s pondered. ”Right now I’m real comfortable going Ike, Jason and Lucas … How it’s going to look, we’ll watch in spring training. Did we need to go protect Lucas and Jason Bay? I’ve written down several different contraptions.”
What Collins does know without a doubt is that Duda isn’t the same timid hitter that originally arrived in the clubhouse last year.
”He now believes in himself,” Collins said. ”Where he came up with some doubts last summer, in the beginning he talked about it and vocalized it: `I’m not sure I belong here.’ Well I just think now he believes he belongs here.”
Duda said he also feels like all the jitters are in the past.
”I think it was just kind of getting acclimated to playing in the big leagues, playing in New York,” he said. ”(It was) just an overall acclimation, getting used to your environment and more comfortable. (I’m) more confident and just going out and playing.”
Collins said he isn’t worried about setting the bar too high for the 26-year-old, as tempting as it might be if he starts the season at the level where he ended last year.
It also helps that as of right now, most versions of his possible lineup cards feature Duda hitting in the sixth spot. That could also deflect any possible pressure for Duda.
”We all know it’s very early in camp and when the season starts it’s about swinging at good pitches that you can hit,” Collins said. ”… Of course in 550 or 560 at-bats you’re going to get a lot of mistakes and if you put a good swing on that mistake, you can do some damage. And he has the ability to do it. But I’m not putting any number (of home runs) on it.”
Likewise, Duda is resisting any urge of feeling like he has already established himself without yet having a full season of success in the majors.
”Until you’re a proven guy, I don’t think you can really have that feeling,” Duda said. ”I’m still in the process of proving myself and hopefully will build on it this year.”