Duffy unlikely hero of Cubs' 5th straight win

May 8th, 2021

CHICAGO -- As the days ticked down toward Opening Day this past spring, surveyed the Cubs' options and was not sure he would make the roster. More than a month into the season, he has played a role in reshaping Chicago's offense.

"He's been huge," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I guess that's an understatement. I don't know what else to say."

On Saturday, Duffy came off the bench for the Cubs and flicked a go-ahead single into right field in the seventh inning, helping Chicago to a 3-2 win over the Pirates. It was just the latest in Duffy's list of contributions that have helped the North Siders' recent turnaround.

The victory gave the Cubs a season-high five wins in a row and pushed Chicago over the break-even mark (17-16) for the first time since April 23. That also was around the time that Ross began mixing Duffy more regularly into the mix.

"Him going to me a lot has given me a ton of confidence in big situations," Duffy said. "And also, yeah, keeping me extremely crisp, I think, at the plate in decision-making overall."

Duffy has helped by adding one of baseball's elite contact-based bats to a lineup that has struggled with swing-and-miss over the last few years. He offers a similar skill-set as Ben Zobrist did during his days as a super-utility man for Chicago.

Entering Saturday's game, among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, Duffy led the Majors in swinging-strike rate (2.1 percent), was second in overall contact rate (93.9 percent) and was third in contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (97.1 percent).

"Duff is a guy that takes what the game gives him," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. "I think there's a lot to be said about that."

Back on April 20, Duffy was hitting .091 (1-for-11) and had appeared in only 11 games (with one start) in Chicago's first 16 contests. The team as a whole was sporting a .189/.286/.366 slash line through that point with a 71.4 percent contact rate.

From April 21 through Friday, Duffy had started in 11 of 16 games and was batting .349/.453/.395 in that span. The Cubs' contact rate also jumped to 76.1 percent in that time period, and the team’s slash line improved to .260/.343/.438 in that same stretch. There is no denying Duffy's role in the team-wide rebound.

"It's just the consistent at-bat," Ross said. "Whether he starts, whether he comes off the bench. Righty or lefty. I mean, this guy's been, when he's been on the field and healthy, he's been a pretty productive player."

Duffy came off the bench and delivered the pinch-hit heroics, but he credited Heyward for igniting the decisive rally on Saturday.

"He won the game with his at-bat and with his baserunning," Duffy said.

In the seventh, Heyward led off with a left-on-left battle against Pirates reliever Sam Howard. The Cubs right fielder drew a walk and later -- with two outs -- stole second base with the game caught in a 2-2 deadlock.

"You steal that base right there for a reason," Heyward said. "Just give yourself a chance. Give your team a chance to come up with a big knock. I expect Duff to do what he does."

Facing Clay Holmes, Duffy slipped into a 1-2 count and then received a slider that dove over the outside corner. The right-handed-hitting Duffy flicked the pitch over the right side of the infield, sending it dropping into right for a base hit.

Heyward hustled around third and used a slick, head-first slide to touch the plate with his left hand. Following the relay home by right fielder Phillip Evans, Heyward narrowly avoided the sweep tag from catcher Michael Perez to put the Cubs ahead.

"The slide into home was just perfect," Duffy said.

Duffy's road to this moment was not.

"My journey here has given me some perspective," he said, "on the fact that this game is a blast."

The veteran was the runner-up to Bryant in the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year race after a standout season with San Francisco. Since then, injuries have marred his career. A serious Achilles injury cost Duffy the 2017 season, and more health woes flared in subsequent campaigns.

The Cubs offered Duffy a chance this spring on a Minor League deal, but the roster crunch did not make him an obvious fit. Even Duffy had his internal doubts as he looked around the practice fields during the preseason.

"I was just kind of internally stewing in my head," Duffy said in April. "I think when I finally just stopped worrying about that and just said, 'Hey, just play baseball and be yourself and if they like you, they like you,' I think that's when I feel like I kind of relaxed a little bit."