Former Cardinal Chris Duncan fighting for a roster spot with Washington Nationals

Chris Duncan, left, was an up-and-coming slugger in 2006 and 2007 in St. Louis, where his father, Dave Duncan, is the pitching coach.
Chris Duncan, left, was an up-and-coming slugger in 2006 and 2007 in St. Louis, where his father, Dave Duncan, is the pitching coach. (Richard Drew/associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- On Sunday morning, Chris Duncan stood inside the batting cage at Space Coast Stadium with a handful of his former teammates and coaches looking on, one of them more intently than the others. Dave Duncan, his father and the St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach, sat on a stool and watched his son.

"He knows he can hit," Dave Duncan said, which had not been true for years. While trying to recapture the two things that for two years made him a burgeoning big league slugger -- his swing and his confidence -- Chris Duncan is also trying to make the Washington Nationals this spring. Duncan represents a perennial spring training hope. They know what he can do. Even though he is only 28, they don't know if he can do it again.

"When you're scribbling out rosters on napkins, there are some scenarios when he's there," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. "And there are some scenarios when he's not."

When his career began, it would have been hard to envision Duncan fighting for a major league spot this soon. In 2006 and 2007, Duncan hit 43 home runs in 655 at-bats while slugging .527 and compiling a .358 on-base percentage. He played in three World Series games at 25. He bashed the ball while his father watched from the dugout. It was like a dream.

Last season, the Cardinals shipped Duncan, by then a minor leaguer, to the Red Sox for shortstop Julio Lugo. He finished the season having played 27 games for Class AAA Pawtucket and batting .188.

Duncan's unraveling began in 2007. He suffered a sports hernia, which he believes occurred while he and his brother Shelly, then a Yankees outfielder, were weightlifting together. The next summer, Duncan needed disk replacement surgery in his neck, an operation that at first put his career in question.

Playing through the hernia in 2007, Duncan altered the mechanics of his swing. He started "feeling" for the ball, he said -- simply, he stopped swinging hard. The loss of bat speed affected his swing. He swung almost entirely with his upper body. He always had a good eye, but he had started guessing pitches, which hindered his ability to recognize balls and strikes.

"Playing through the injuries and failing as bad as a I did, I lost a lot of confidence," Duncan said. "I kind of lost my edge."

His neck injury only worsened his problems. In 260 at-bats with the Cardinals last season, Duncan hit .227 with five home runs. Once he finally felt healthy, his compensating had turned into habit. His self-esteem crumbled. The Cardinals sent him to the minors last summer, and days later they traded him to Boston. For the first time in his career, he had to play for an organization other than his father's.

"People don't realize what he went through," Dave Duncan said. "The combination of the two things caused him to do a lot of things differently than he should have been doing them. He's in the process of correcting those things, relearning his swing."

When the Red Sox released Duncan, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo considered signing him. He called Riggleman, who had coached Duncan as the Cardinals' field coordinator. "Yeah," Riggleman told Rizzo. "That's good."

"He's a gamer," Riggleman said. "I like the way he plays. He's an old-school ballplayer. He works hard. He plays hard. He wants to win."

With the Nationals, Duncan has dual, and sometimes conflicting, aims. He needs to fix his swing and also make the team. If Adam Dunn or Ryan Zimmerman wants to tinker with his swing, they can do so at no risk. Duncan's at-bats will decide his future.

"When you're trying to make changes and you're also trying to make a club, that's a real challenge," Riggleman said. "It's tough to commit to some change when every at-bat is crucial to you."

Progress has come, but slowly. Duncan is 2 for 18 with six strikeouts this spring, with the process of rebuilding his swing more struggle than success. He works with hitting coach Rick Eckstein perhaps more than any other player, and Eckstein believes Duncan has made progress.

"No doubt," Eckstein said. "He's shown it in batting practice. At times, he's shown it in a game. It's just not the result everybody is looking for. That doesn't mean it's not there. You can absolutely put an 'A' swing out there and swing and miss."

Duncan resists the urge to wonder if maybe he should have sat more games when he had the hernia, if maybe the detour in his career could have been avoided.

"It's easy to look back," he said. "I thought I could play at the time, and I did what I did. I've got to start believing in myself again."

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