Sunday, July 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Matt Duffy attempts to walk off ‘Sasquatch’ label

PORT CHARLOTTE  — He was 23 in October 2014, the youngest member of the dog pile the San Francisco Giants made in Kansas City after winning the World Series.

"It was such an out-of-body experience," Matt Duffy said.

So is this.

Duffy is now 27. The 2018 season beckons, and Duffy finally beckons back. He is expected to start the season for the Rays at third base, in place of no less than the departed Evan Longoria. Tough racket.

Meet the mystery man — the man who Rays fans knew by name only, because of the foot and heel injuries that sidelined Duffy all of 2017. He was here, but he wasn't here. He never played in a game for the Rays. Hey, I admit it. I didn't talk to Duffy for the first time until the other day. He was Matt Who?

He is likable. He is thoughtful. Duffy even laughed at some of the names he was called. Even had a favorite.

"Sasquatch," he said with a grin. "That was the best."

Have you spotted him, Rays fans?

And now he gets to replace Longoria, who was a face of a franchise. Duffy isn't Bigfoot, but he has oversized shoes to fill. Plays third and might bat third, though Duffy was scratched from Tuesday's game against the Orioles with what the Rays said was back tightness.

"He could (hit third) in our lineup," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He's looked great. He's going to fit probably where he's needed most."

"I'm not going to hit 35 home runs like Evan did," Duffy said. "I'm not even going to come close. I'd like to think we have the same mentality, same college, Southern California guys."

Two Long Beach State guys, fellow "Dirtbags." Longoria has found a home in San Francisco, where a young Duffy once stepped in to replace Pablo Sandoval, who signed with Boston and then presumably locked himself in a bakery.

Duffy was great as a rookie in 2015, hitting .295 with 12 home runs and 77 RBIs, good enough to finish second in voting for National League Rookie of the Year. The Rays would sign up for that right now.

Duffy has looked good and healthy early this spring, in the field and at the plate. He will never be confused with Longoria. And Duffy isn't about to start the confusion.

"I hope nobody is looking at it that way," Cash said. "You're not going to replace (Longoria). Period. Nine years. The face of a franchise. It wouldn't be fair to Duffy or Christian Arroyo to think, 'I've got to live up to that standard.' They've got to make their own."

Duffy knows the standard he wants. He laid out his game, built on fielding and making contact at the plate, the latter being a fresh slant for the Rays.

"To me, it's a guy who'd do whatever it takes that day to help the team win, whether it's to move a guy over, get a big hit in the ninth, make a play in the field," Duffy said. "If you strike out, you go back out there with your glove and try to make a play. You try to be annoying to pitchers. Maybe they're not scared of me, but if I'm an annoyance, and I'm doing my job. That's what a baseball player does."

He had nothing but problems after joining the Rays as part of the August 2016 deal that sent Rays lefty Matt Moore to the Giants. Duffy underwent season-ending surgery on his left heel after just 21 games with the Rays.

"Mentally was the hardest part," Duffy said. "There was the physical pain. That's what kept me off the field. But, mentally you want to be out there, you want to help."

And to think that when Duffy first injured his Achilles in 2016, it was against these very Rays. It snapped his streak of 188 consecutive games, at the time the longest active streak in the majors. Chasing Ripken. Matt Duffy! Since the injury, Duffy has played in only 21 of his teams' 256 games.

"I'm sure when I keep getting mentioned, people were like, 'Don't even say his name anymore,'" Duffy said.

And now he steps in for Longoria.

"He's come in and kind of owned it," Cash said. "There's a lot of doubt, and he said, 'I don't blame them.'"

Duffy struggled in his comeback at times. Last season, his mind even drifted to life after baseball.

"It did a little bit," Duffy said. "I was thinking about what was I going to do if this thing doesn't change. Because it felt like I was spinning my wheels for six months. I was just not improving. It would improve when I took a couple of days off, and once I would start back, it would go downhill. Motivation was kind of ebbing. It had been almost a year at that point.  It just wasn't working."

Now it's working.

"My job is to help us figure out how we're going to win a game," Duffy said.

It will be hard for the Rays to find wins this season.

But at least they know Duffy's whereabouts.

You know, the thing about Sasquatch is no one ever proved that he was real.

Duffy smiled.

"You're right. They never did find him."

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