NLCS Moment: Mets’ Lucas Duda finds his swing

Coming into Wednesday’s Game 4 of the NLCS, the Mets’ Lucas Duda was having the worst postseason of any hitter on any team who qualified for the postseason. During the playoffs, he had come to the plate 27 times and made 22 outs, 13 of them via the strikeout. All three of his hits were singles, and the only run he had knocked in came on a groundout. Things were going so poorly for Duda that, in Game 3, he attempted a bunt after Yoenis Cespedes led off the sixth inning with a single to right field. When your slugging first baseman is just trying to beat the shift to get himself on when the go-ahead run is already standing on first base, you know he’s not exactly abounding in confidence in his own abilities.

So when Jason Hammel watched Curtis Granderson steal second base during Cespedes’ first inning at-bat on Wednesday, part of Hammel had to be OK with that; it opened up first base, and with two outs and a slumping Duda on deck, pitching around Cespedes become the obvious course of action. It wasn’t officially an intentional walk, but Hammel wasn’t pounding the strike zone, and seemed quite content to face Duda with men on rather than let Cespedes get a real shot at driving Granderson in.

So, after four balls to Cespedes, up stepped Duda. Hammel, struggling with his command, fell behind 2-0, but then challenged Duda with a fastball right down the middle; Duda fouled it off. Of course he did. Hammel then came back with a curveball on the inner half, and Duda swung through that, pushing the count to 2-2. Hammel was just one strike away from getting out of the inning unscathed, and one strike away against a guy with a 49 percent strikeout rate in October.

Hammel went with a fastball away, trying to paint the outside corner, but plate umpire Paul Emmel decided it was just a little too far outside, calling ball three instead. It was the right call, but Duda was a couple of inches away from striking out for the 14th time in 28 trips to the plate.

With a full count, Hammel stayed with the fastball away, getting it over the corner this time, and Duda again fouled it off. Emboldened by the fact that the Mets first baseman wasn’t squaring anything up, Hammel and catcher David Ross decided to stay out there, and force Duda to show he could hit the fastball on the outer edge.

He did:

Statcast measured the blast at 420 feet, coming off Duda’s bat at 107 mph. Duda hadn’t hit a ball that hard since September 25th, when he launched a 434 foot homer off Tony Cingrani of the Reds. Duda hadn’t even come close to hitting a ball that hard all postseason, in fact; his average exit velocity on the 10 balls he’d previously put in play (excluding the bunt attempt) in the playoffs was just 81 mph, which is lower than the lowest regular-season average exit velocity of any batter who was allowed to hit at least 150 times.

Before that swing, Duda was combining a pitcher’s contact rate with Billy Hamilton’s batted ball authority, but a couple of horrid weeks disappeared in an instant. As Hammel’s pitch sailed over the center-field fence, the Mets win probability jumped from 50 percent to 77 percent, and given that winning this game meant a trip to the World Series, Duda became a hero.

Sure, he’d have rather had Daniel Murphy’s postseason, but with that one swing, Duda helped propel his team to the pennant. A few hours later, Duda charged the field — after the Mets’ 8-3 victory — to celebrate with his teammates, knowing he had perhaps found his missing swing.