The national TV guys were singing Matt Duffy’s praises and were particularly impressed with his 10 home runs. After all, they said, he didn’t hit any at Long Beach State.
Which means that not everybody has been to Blair Field, the polar opposite of Cape Canaveral. It is the Longest Yard in college baseball, thanks to faraway fences, heavy air and pretty good Big West pitching.
“My junior year we didn’t hit a home run there the whole season,” Duffy said. “Neither did any of the visiting teams. We’d have Southeastern Conference teams come in there, some big boys, and one of them would hit a long fly ball. You’d hear the dugout yell, ‘See ya!’ And the ball wouldn’t even get to the warning track.”
Duffy is fairly skeletal anyway, at 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds. He knew the fences were just there for scenery. So he learned how to really hit, to use the gaping outfield as his own weapon. It was the triumph of the clear head, and it has made Duffy absolutely essential to the San Francisco Giants.
Duffy is hitting .302 with 60 RBIs. He has learned third base, which opened up when Pablo Sandoval left for free agency. The Giants signed veteran Casey McGehee to take care of it, and he didn’t, and Duffy took over.
In an extraordinary NL rookie class, Duffy ranks first in hits, second in batting average, RBIs and runs, and total bases. Duffy is hitting .373 with men in scoring position, third among all NL hitters.
Kris Bryant of the Cubs is still favored to win Rookie of the Year, despite the best efforts of the Cardinals’ Randall Grichuk, the Pirates’ Jung-Ho Kang and the Mets’ Noah Syndegaard. But Duffy will get lots of votes, and he wasn’t a Baseball America cover boy in college, like Bryant.
The Giants took him in the 18th round, and Duffy, a middle infielder back then, didn’t stress out with each passing pick. He knew that none of the stuff would matter once he signed, especially with the Giants.
“They make it very clear to you,” Duffy said. “You’re here to help them win and go to the World Series. It’s not like you’re a work in progress and then they’re going to mold you once you get up there. Once you make it, you’re going to be expected to hit the ground running. It’s ‘go’ time.
“They also believe that there is a possibility, no matter how small, that you can get up here and help them win a game, and that might help them get to where they want to go. That relaxes you. You say, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
You know, like maybe scoring from second base on a wild pitch in Game 2 of an NL Championship Series, with two out in the ninth. Duffy did that to St. Louis last year (Yadier Molina was out with an oblique problem). The Giants lost the game but learned something.
This spring Duffy learned third base. “You’re so close,” he said. “It feels like you can reach out and touch the hitter. I got drilled a couple of times, but I was able to make the play, and I felt I could handle it after that. You have to be a hockey goalie at times, but you can slow down, not worry about getting your feet into position so quickly, because you have more time than you think.”
Duffy is a follower of Harvey Dorfman, the renowned psychologist who wrote “The Inner Game Of Hitting.” For Duffy it means fixating on the ball and not strategy, pitch selection or the pitcher’s approach. It also means not letting a 1-for-10 linger, not that he’s had many.
All that understated logic makes it even more hilarious that Duffy is better-known as Duffman, the superhero on The Simpsons who is actually a spoof of marketing hype. He has the Duffman logo on his bats.
Otherwise he’s a man at work, wowing the scouts on Monday night when he drove Brett Anderson’s down-and-away 0-and-1 pitch to right field, trying to keep the blinders on when all his shimmering stats go on the scoreboard.
“It’s like (second baseman Joe) Panik said when he made the All-Star team,” he said. “He said, ‘The numbers will take me where they take me.’ But, yeah, I look at those numbers once in a while.”
In a way, Blair Field turns out to be a metaphor for a lot of things, even baseball things. Matt Duffy figured out he could go a long way, if he played within the confines.
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