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Former Giant Duffy enjoying bounce-back year with Cubs

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Matt Duffy

Matt Duffy only played 253 games for the Giants, but he squeezed a lot into his tenure.

Duffy came up straight from Double-A in 2014 and provided one of the more exciting moments of that postseason run, scoring the tying run from second on a wild pitch in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. That was followed by a surprise push for Rookie of the Year after he took over for ill-advised offseason addition Casey McGehee. Even Duffy's exit a year later was memorable. The trade with the Tampa Bay Rays just before the 2016 deadline shocked the clubhouse and fan base of what had been the best team in baseball.

But looking back at those three years at Oracle Park, perhaps none of that is what amazes Duffy the most.

On this week's "Giants Talk Podcast," Duffy laughed as he recalled how his family's pet cat, Skeeter, who has since passed away, became a star in his own right in the Bay Area. 

"Yeah, that was a pretty trippy thing to have him go off like he did," he said. "And then he's on the scoreboard ... It was so funny. I don't know if you've been to Washington when they have Max Scherzer's eyes all over the scoreboards when you get to two strikes. It was like that, but with Skeeter."

Skeeter, a regular on the scoreboard when the Giants needed a rally, certainly helped get Duffy known nationally, but at Oracle Park, he was appreciated for the full story. A skinny 18th-round pick who was never a top prospect, Duffy briefly gave the Giants a fifth homegrown infield standout, joining Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford. He became a fan favorite, so much so that the 2016 trade that brought Matt Moore to the Giants has gone down as one of the most infamous in Giants history even though Duffy ended up playing just 199 games for the Rays over three-plus seasons because of nagging injuries.

 

Duffy is 30 now, and injuries still occasionally get in the way. He will be at Oracle Park on Thursday for the first time as a visiting player, but he won't be active for the Chicago Cubs. Duffy has a minor back strain that temporarily halted the latest chapter in his baseball story. This one is as good as the first, in part because of everything that has happened since that deadline day deal. 

Duffy had surgery on his Achilles shortly after the trade and missed the entire 2017 season. He bounced back in 2018, taking over for Evan Longoria -- who headlined another Giants-Rays deal -- and posting a 2.9-WAR season while batting .294. But in 2019, he again struggled to stay on the field. 

The Rays released Duffy that offseason and he signed with the Texas Rangers, who released him the next June, just before the start of summer camps. Duffy signed with the New York Yankees a couple days later, but he spent all of last season at their alternate site. Last November, as Duffy was preparing to propose to his girlfriend, Rachael, the Cubs called. He took care of the most important business first and then called the Cubs back and agreed to a minor league deal. 

Given another chance in the NL, Duffy has helped the Cubs soar into first place in the NL Central. He's batting .278 with a .377 on-base percentage in 38 appearances, and while he started off as a utility man, Duffy became the Cubs' primary third baseman in late April. Cubs observers credit him for helping the team take off, as his contact skills were a needed skill for a power-packed lineup.

It's been a bumpy road at times since Duffy left San Francisco, but he once again finds himself as a valuable piece for a contender. Duffy said he briefly had some doubts last year while playing at an alternate site during a pandemic, but those were quickly drowned out. Pushing to get back to this position has always "been a no-brainer," he said.

"It doesn't get any better than this, whether you want to see it as a game or a job, however you look at it, it doesn't get any better. I still kind of giggle at myself that I get to do this every day, regardless of whether I'm at an alternate site or I'm in the minor leagues or here -- it's pretty freaking cool," Duffy said. "And second, I just feel like I'm still a competitive baseball player. I feel like I have a lot of playing left in me, a lot of productive playing left in me. The combination of those two things, it's like, why not continue to try to prove that I can be the player that I have been in the past."

 

Just about everything at Oracle Park has changed since Duffy's run as a Giant ended, from the front office, to the coaching staff, to well ... the world. Duffy never played in front of a non-sellout crowd as a Giant, but Oracle Park still has COVID-19 restrictions for this series, a bummer given how well Cubs fans travel.

One thing hasn't changed, though. Duffy once played third base alongside Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt on a nightly basis, and all three still are key pieces for the Giants. In one respect, Duffy returns with bragging rights over the Brandons, both of whom want to get on a big league mound at some point. Duffy made his pitching debut on April 28, coming in one batter after Anthony Rizzo struck out Freddie Freeman in one of the funnier moments of this MLB season.

"I've always said I want to play long enough to where I get to pitch in a big league game," he said. "Usually it's like guys on the back end of their career. Where I was at in my career early on with the Giants and with the Rays, chances are I wasn't going to pitch in a game. I was like, I want to get to that point where I can pitch in a game and the team doesn't care -- I'm not going to hurt myself on the mound. And then I can retire happy."

Duffy faced just one batter, getting a grounder back to the mound. With a runner on first and two outs, he instinctively turned and fired to second for the force.

"I forgot how many outs there were the second I got on the mound," he said, laughing. "It was so much fun."

Duffy got a chance to pitch that day because the Cubs were getting blown out en route to their 14th loss in their first 24 games. They looked headed for a deadline fire sale, but rolled off a 19-8 stretch in May before opening June by completing an impressive sweep of the San Diego Padres. Duffy has a chance to get back to the postseason for the second time since that initial run in 2014, and he sees a lot to like about this Cubs team. He sees a familiar trait, too. 

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"I think it's just kind of similar to the Giants in that it's a quiet confidence," he said. "The guys here are secure in their position, they know how talented they are, they know what they're capable of. When you have a clubhouse like that there's not a lot of panic when things didn't start out great for us this year. The conversations in the clubhouse were very similar to what they were in San Francisco over the years.

 

"It was just, hey, we know what we're capable of. We need to pick it up a little bit but there's no panic of everybody wanting to blow things up or we have to try things drastic. It was just, let's pick it up a little bit. I think that's probably the biggest similarity."

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