Duda delivering with defense, albeit quietly
NEW YORK -- Ruben Tejada took it all like a man, the back slaps, the slaps to the head and various other physical attaboys, even a shaving-cream pie. His base hit to left-center field in the 11th inning Sunday had come on the final pitch of the Mets' 5-4 victory against the Phillies. Tejada walked off a hero, then became a Pie a la Met.
Some 28 hours later, Tejada's teammate Lucas Duda provided a different sort of happy ending, initiating and completing a game-ending double play, the rare 3-5-3 variety, that was as emphatic as Tejada's single and less expected. For his part in the closing scene of the Mets' 9-7 victory against the Yankees on Monday, Duda was the target of a comparatively tame reception from his colleagues -- perfunctory congrats in the high-five line, soft fist bumps and nary a pie of any substance in his happy face.
Defense often goes unrewarded, though seldom does it go unrecognized. Duda had more to do with the second of the Mets' first back-to-back victories this month than the winning pitcher (Jenrry Mejia), the saver (Kyle Farnsworth) or any one of the four teammates who had hit home runs. He started a 3-6-3 double play in the eighth, minutes after his badly broken-bat single had tied the score at 7. Duda also scored the eighth run on Chris Young's home run.
A paid-to-watch observer with nothing to gain by commending the Mets' first baseman returned to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night for the second act of the III -- Intra-city Interleague Interlude. And he offered praise for much of what Duda has become.
"He pays attention to all facets of the game," Bob Johnson said. "He anticipated that ground ball [the final play of the game, a hot grounder Brian McCann had pulled to Duda's right]. He was ready for that play, ready for all possibilities on one side or the other.
"I can't say everyone else on the field was."
Johnson is a longtime advance scout in the big leagues. He works for the Nationals these days, having advanced for the Braves and Mets in recent seasons. Johnson is an astute observer who enjoys his job most when those he is paid to assess play the game with precision and passion.
So Johnson thoroughly enjoyed the bottom of the ninth Monday night.
"I'm so impressed by his growth as a big leaguer," Johnson said of Duda. "He wants to be a good player. Some guys are happy when they reach this level. I'm sure Lucas Duda was happy. But he has worked to make himself a better hitter and a better defensive player and a more alert player. His concentration sets him apart from a lot of players at this level. He gets the most out of what he has. And to me, that's very refreshing to see."
For one night at least, Duda was an almost silent assassin. He is quiet in much the same way that Kareem is tall and Gates is wealthy. Even when his bat split -- he was left with a six-inch splinter and the rest of it flew over the Yankees' dugout -- on his single, it barely made a sound. Yet his were the most telling contributions.
Duda is the personification of speak softly and carry a big stick. And the stick -- and his size -- tend to obscure whatever defensive prowess exists (see Boog Powell and George Scott). Duda is not to be confused with many of his first-base predecessors in Queens. Keith Hernandez was an almost perfect first baseman, and John Olerud was quite gifted. Rico Brogna and David Segui were better than average, as was Ike Davis. Gil Hodges, the team's first first baseman, had created a Gold Glove legacy with the Dodgers years before the Mets played in the Polo Grounds.
Carlos Delgado often was a statue. By the time the Mets imported Eddie Murray, his defense had slipped dramatically. Dave Kingman could do as much damage with his glove as he did with his bat. Joe Torre once said about Rusty Staub, "as a first baseman, Rusty's a great hitter." And then there was Marvelous Marv, who also left a legacy.
"But I think Lucas is a good first baseman," David Wright said. "I'm pretty sure he's better than average, but it's like he hasn't caught on yet."
Strangely, Duda's defense will catch on -- if he hits more.
Yes, it's one of those baseball axioms that prompt head scratching. When Doug Flynn didn't repeat as the National League Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman in 1981, Torre explained why: "Dougie didn't hit enough."