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Matt Duffy stood in his defensive position at third base and soaked in the atmosphere earlier this week at Truist Park in Atlanta.
Duffy couldn’t help but internally nod along to the chants of nearly 20,000 fans in the ballpark, embracing the moment and this opportunity with the Chicago Cubs.
“It helps me to just join in, in a way it tricks my brains into thinking that the fans are behind me instead of against me,” Duffy said this week. “It’s just fun, all of it. Like, when I get pissed off, I look back and that’s part of the fun too.
“We’re so lucky to do what we do. If you have the right perspective on any situation, you can handle it and thrive in it and love it.”
Duffy’s journey to this point required overcoming injuries the last few years and winning a spot on the Cubs as a non-roster invitee. Within a six-year span, Duffy went from finishing runner-up to now teammate Kris Bryant for the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2015 to being part of five organizations and fighting to stick in the majors.
Duffy’s winding big-league path to Chicago included missing all of the 2017 season because of a torn Achilles and heel injury. During the 2019 season, a hamstring issue sidelined him for four months. He spent last season at the New York Yankees alternate site.
Duffy, 30, has endured frustrating moments in the years since he shined during his rookie season with the San Francisco Giants. But through it, he’s maintained an upbeat attitude.
There are moments Duffy can’t believe this is what he does for a living.
“The fact that I can call this my job, like, even last year being at the alternate site with the Yankees, guys were complaining, I’m like, ‘Dude, this is so sick,’” Duffy said. “Like, we’re still getting paid. A lot of people can’t be saying that right now, and we’re just practicing baseball. This is the reason I love the game — the pursuit of getting better. I love competition, of course, but the pursuit of getting better is what I love about it.”
Duffy caught Cubs manager David Ross’ attention during spring training with his quality at-bats and versatility, both defensively and what he could bring off the bench. The numbers he produced during his career when healthy weren’t overlooked either. Duffy was a little surprised to make the Cubs out of camp but appreciated how Ross and the organization value his strengths.
Finding success with limited playing time is a challenge for any major-league hitter. Duffy started only two of the Cubs’ first 17 games, instead primarily used as a go-to pinch hitter, especially against left-handers.
An injury to outfielder Joc Pederson created an opportunity for Duffy to show what he can do with regular playing time. Duffy is 9-for-24 (.375) with a .516 on-base percentage and .891 OPS in six starts (nine games total) over the last nine days entering Friday night. The series opener against the Cincinnati Reds represented his fourth consecutive start.
Duffy’s emergence as one of the Cubs’ most consistent hitters has been an unexpected development. From seldom starting off the bench to hitting third in the lineup twice this week, Duffy is trying not to put too much pressure on himself.
“Sometimes that obviously doesn’t work out, but going through the successes I have the confidence that I belong here despite injuries,” Duffy said. “Although I don’t mind being kind of a role guy or fill-in guy, I’m comfortable in any situation the team needs me.
“It’s all given me just perspective, really. There’s been times when I felt like, ‘Poor me, I go through these injuries, why me?’ But if you have the right perspective about things, it’s tools in your tool belt for anything you come up against going forward.”
Duffy’s confidence in his ability to adjust to whatever situation he might face has been valuable for a team — and offense — still trying to hit its stride. Ross has been impressed by Duffy’s professionalism, work ethic, approach and ability to maintain his timing even when he doesn’t get regular at-bats.
Ross understands the difficulty in Duffy’s role from his time as a backup catcher for most of his 15-year career. The most challenging part, Ross said, is maintaining timing in the batter’s box and handling the speed of the game when having to come off the bench for one at-bat in late, high-leverage situations.
“To have your timing with that, to find your routine that keeps you ready and don’t outwork yourself, and you’re tired come game time,” Ross said. “ ... He’s got to be ready to go out and perform and he’s done everything.”
At some point, Duffy likely will shift back into a reserve role. Pederson joined the Cubs for their weekend series in Cincinnati to continue his rehab process from left wrist tendinitis. Once he is ready to come off the injured list, there will be a playing time crunch and decisions to be made about Nico Hoerner’s place on the team.
The ripple effect will impact Duffy, too, who primarily has been playing third with Kris Bryant shifting into the outfield during Pederson’s absence.
After what he’s endured the last few years, Duffy is ready for whatever comes next.
“I believe that I can play at the highest level, I believe that I belong on the field with the best players in the game,” Duffy said. “But at the same time, I think that doing whatever you can for the team, if everybody does that, the results will speak for themselves, the team will gel better, you’re going to be a better team. That’s kind of always been my mindset.”