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Duncan provides Cardinals with unexpected lift

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

(Photo)
St. Louis Cardinals' Chris Duncan tosses his bat as he and Cincinnati Reds catcher Jason LaRue watch his home run in the fifth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
(AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
Duncan has provided an unexpected boost with 14 home runs and a .345 batting average.

ST. LOUIS -- Chris Duncan has made such an impact with the St. Louis Cardinals, pretty soon everyone will forget he's the son of the pitching coach.

Duncan had three straight three-hit games last week against the Reds, has been belting home runs at a McGwire-like pace and showing daily improvements at an unfamiliar position, providing a much-needed boost for a team struggling to make it back to the postseason. He was batting .345 with 14 homers and 29 RBIS in only 168 at-bats.

"This guy has given us a tremendous lift," manager Tony La Russa said. "He's getting hits against the best pitchers in the league."

The Cardinals declined to re-sign Reggie Sanders in the offseason and spent much of this year searching to replace that lost production. Larry Bigbie and So Taguchi were supposed to share the job at the start of spring training, and John Rodriguez and even Scott Spiezio have gotten a look there. They also tried unsuccessfully to fill that hole at the trade deadline.

Duncan, in his second stint with the team this season, is making the Cardinals happy it saved the money. He's become a fixture in the No. 2 slot, providing pop ahead of Albert Pujols. Teammates appreciate his no-nonsense attitude.

"I don't think he's overly impressed with himself," third baseman Scott Rolen said. "I think he knows he has to work hard, he has to learn the game, he has to understand some things.

"He didn't come up here and say 'Hey, I've got this."'

The Cardinals naturally were hyperaware of Duncan's talents out of high school, taking him as a supplemental first-round pick in 1999, because Dave Duncan has been La Russa's trusted right-hand man for more than two decades. Then again, Chris Duncan labored at the Class A level for three years, evidence he didn't make it to the major leagues as a favor.

La Russa believes there are trade-offs that come with being a second-generation major leaguer. He's been able to learn at the feet of Dave Duncan, a former major league catcher, picking up much of the nuances by osmosis. On the other hand, there's a tendency to feel an extra need to prove oneself.

"There's no free lunch," La Russa said. "There's a lot of good to it, and it also carries some burdens.

"He's got talent, and if you've got talent you can get around whatever the issues are."

Duncan gets daily feedback from his father, a former right-handed power-hitting catcher for the Oakland Athletics. Perhaps naturally, Dave Duncan is reluctant to jump on the bandwagon.

"He's trying to go about it the right way," Duncan said. "So far it's paying off. You don't want to make too much of it because there's a lot of games left."

Chris Duncan also works daily with batting coach Hal McRae to hone his stroke. A first baseman for most of his minor league career before moving to right field last season, he's getting tutored on the fine points of left field by first base coach Dave McKay. McKay's son, Cody, was less of a success with the Cardinals a few years ago.

He's a work in progress in the field, at times taking awkward angles on balls, but as game experience mounts, he appears to be settling in. At the plate, pitchers have yet to figure out a way to get him out.

For a big swinger, Duncan has good command of the strike zone. He also knows that with Pujols on deck, pitchers can't afford to be too careful.

"I'm just going up there trying to be aggressive," Duncan said. "I know Albert's behind me, and I'm just looking for a good pitch to hit.

"I feel if I can just get on base, there's a pretty good chance Albert's going to drive me in."

If he's still on base, that is. Duncan hit his 13th homer in Saturday's game against the Cubs, and his 14th on Sunday.

"He'll be an impact guy," La Russa said, then quickly corrected himself. "He is an impact guy right now."


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