BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was about this time a year ago that Chris Duffy's season began to crumble.
Before it even started.
He was concussed by a Curt Schilling beaning in spring training, confused by the Pirates' attempt to alter his approach at the plate, and his confidence was all but shot by the time he faced his first meaningful pitch.
He batted .194 into May, refused a demotion to the minors and headed home to Arizona to ponder his future in baseball.
And yet, somehow, this same player clearly was having the time of his life on the afternoon of Sept. 7, smiling richly and contentedly in the Wrigley Field clubhouse moments after living the leadoff man's dream by going 4 for 4 with two home runs, including the one that broke a ninth-inning tie.
He batted .282 after his return, including .339 in his final 30 games, and stole bases almost at will.
"Yeah, it's funny to look back now, but that all happened in the same year," Duffy recalled yesterday at his McKechnie Field stall. "Crazy, huh?"
And capped with a highly uplifting ending.
But not the sort of story for which Duffy would like to see a sequel.
"Not at all. And you won't."
He insists upon this despite another silent spring in which he is batting .163 -- 7 for 43 -- with just five runs and one steal, including three hitless at-bats with a strikeout yesterday in a 2-2 tie with the Toronto Blue Jays. And his on-base percentage, so critical to leading off, is a paltry .200, thanks largely to just one walk.
It is a showing that surely is bound to draw an uh-oh reaction from many observers.
What if he beats himself up again?
What if he walks away again?
"Forget it," Duffy said. "What happened to me last year ... it's the biggest learning experience I've ever had. Not just in baseball, but in life. When I look back on what I was hitting at one point, when it was tough to keep going out there every day and trying so hard to perform ... and somehow, I was able to turn that all around."
"It was pretty simple, really. When I came back, I wasn't worried about the numbers. I was just swinging the bat, playing the game, having fun. It felt like going to Little League, you know? And all I'm doing now is working to carry that over into this season. I can tell you I feel great this year, health-wise, mentally, everything."
Others will back him -- passionately -- on that count.
His best friend ...
"I think he's where he needs to be right now mentally," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "And I think, because of that, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with this season. He's the type of guy who, when he puts his mind to something, he'll be damned if he doesn't do it. Honestly, I can't wait to see it."
His hitting coach ...
"Chris is totally different than a year ago," Jeff Manto said. "His questions are great. His awareness of what we're teaching in the cage is awesome. To say that this was the same guy as last year ... you wouldn't believe it."
And his manager ...
"He came back to us and sent a very positive message," Jim Tracy said. "And that hasn't changed."
Excited as so many in camp are about the Pirates' new heart of the order with Adam LaRoche at cleanup, it will be moot without a productive Duffy at the top.
How important is he?
Consider that the team was 23-9 when he scored at least one run last season, 12-0 when he had two or more.
"He was the catalyst, the one who spearheaded us in a winning direction," Tracy said. "He's a very important part of what we're trying to do here."
Duffy tends to bristle at any talk of pressure, but he does seem to accept the pivotal nature of his job.
"I understand it. I do," he said. "I don't want to sell anybody else short, but there's a reason they put you at the top of the order. You're expected to put pressure on the defense. You're expected to get things going. I know that starts with me. But I showed I can do it, and I'm prepared to pick up where I left off, so I don't see it as pressure when I look at it that way."
The Pirates continue to stress to Duffy to keep the ball on the ground, a preaching that Duffy last year took badly enough that it likely contributed to his unexcused absence. But there seems to be more flexibility -- in each direction -- after Duffy showed the team late last season that his natural penchant for line drives can pay off, too.
The emphasis now is on pitch selection and taking advantage of the defense.
"Chris has more to offer our offense than just pounding the ball downward. He can drive the ball, and we know that," Manto said. "What he needs to do is be more selective at the plate and be more aware of what's happening in the field. What I don't think he trusts right now is the impact he has on a defense in the major leagues. When he steps out of the box and looks around, people start to panic."
Meaning how the defense is set up.
"The third baseman will think, 'Is he going to bunt it to me?' The first baseman and second baseman are wondering, too. He creates chaos. But he just has to believe that he does. He has speed that arguably is tops in the game, and we've got to use it every way we can."
"Everything's going according to plan," Duffy said. "Spring training is not about hits or numbers. I'm just doing things to get back to where I was at the end of last year, and I feel like I'm getting there."
He smiled again.
"Everything's going to be fine."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Pirates center fielder Chris Duffy insists that he will not have a repeat performance of last year's early meltdown.
Click photo for larger image.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com .