First Baseman A Much Different Hitter In 2015 — But Will He Keep It Up?

By Ernie Palladino
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Ten games is a bit early to take the temperature of any baseball team. But it’s hard to let this one wait because, well, things can change quickly for those who play the game with M-E-T-S written across their uniform fronts.

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So enjoy this next phrase as long as the happy condition lasts.

The Mets are hot!

Even with captain David Wright and his strained hamstring hitting the DL Wednesday, the arrow is pointing up and all is delightful around Citi Field. The Mets beat the Marlins 7-5 Thursday, and their five-game winning streak is their longest since 2013.

They won the opening series from Washington, then followed a 1-2 hiccup in Atlanta with a sweep of Philadelphia that included a home-opening shutout performance from Jacob deGrom and a passable performance from Matt Harvey. And then they fought back twice against the Marlins.

They’re 7-3. Even more ironic, Lucas Duda could well become the face of the offense, at least until Wright gets back.

Think about that for a second. The man who won the offseason coin flip with the since-traded Ike Davis is making Sandy Alderson look quite smart these days for keeping him around. Duda, the free-swinger who struggled to a .260/.341/.452 slash line last April, is off to a great start. He hit his first homer Wednesday in a 6-1 win over Philadelphia, and he leads Mets hitters with a .395 average. The number is 62 points higher than the inactive Wright’s, who stands second on the team.

This is quite a change for a first baseman who hit .200 his first 10 games last year. After a 30-home run season, 16 of which came after the All-Star break, the Mets rightfully expected similar power from him this time around. But the average comes as an added bonus.

He’s seeing the ball better, and using the whole field. He has just six strikeouts so far, though plenty of time remains to push that nasty column up to the 22 he had last April. For now, he’s getting better pitches and taking advantage of them.

He can thank his protection for that.

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“With Michael Cuddyer and Dan Murphy hitting behind him, they have to give him something to hit,” manager Terry Collins told the media Wednesday. “One of the things you’ve seen the last few days with Lucas is that he’s patient enough to get some better pitches to swing at.

“I believe Lucas Duda’s makeup has changed the last couple of years. He knows he belongs and he can hit and put up big numbers here.”

As nice as that sounds, Duda still has much to prove. So does the whole lineup. For all their 21 runs the last four games, the Mets are and will remain a pitching-based outfit until they prove otherwise.

But seeing Duda’s bat come alive, not just in power but in timely hits like the single that drove in the go-ahead and ultimate winning run in the seventh against the Marlins, is a welcome sight for a manager whose job depends on a good first half. He also banged an RBI double in the Mets’ first game without Wright Wednesday.

His two doubles Thursday marked his third straight game of multiple extra-base hits, a career first that allowed him to join a club peopled by just a handful of other Mets.

Even the lefties haven’t given him many problems so far. After hitting .180 in 111 at-bats against southpaws last year, he’s now 4-for-8, which includes the key RBI single Thursday against southpaw Mike Dunn. And he hit that just a shade left of center field.

Ten games. Small samples, yes. But encouraging signs.

As with anything Mets-related, this can all change in a hurry. A little impatience here, a little over-eagerness there, and Duda could easily revert to the free-swinger the Mets sent to the minors after going 6-for-43 in July of 2012. Of course, the flip side to that move was the elevation of Harvey.

It still took a new hitting coach in Kevin Long and some intense work in the batting cage to turn Duda’s philosophy around.

He must continue to follow it.

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But so far, so good.