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Missed time a good mental reset for Rays’ Matt Duffy

ST. PETERSBURG — Missing all of 2017 might have been the absolute worst thing for Matt Duffy.

Frustratingly idled as he eventually recovered and rehabbed from ongoing left heel issues, he couldn't play the game he loved, couldn't show the Rays or fans why they acquired him from San Francisco the previous August, couldn't do anything about the repeated setbacks that rendered each revised timetable moot until he ran out of season.

Missing all of 2017 might have been the absolute best thing for Matt Duffy.

Frustratingly idled as he eventually recovered and rehabbed from ongoing left heel issues, he could watch plenty of games and players doing right and wrong, could talk and philosophize about the ups and downs of the daily grind, could learn a lot about the game and, more importantly, himself.

And, now, he is convinced that the forced sabbatical is a primary reason for his current success as the Rays' most consistent hitter, evidenced, among other metrics, by a .317 average that ranks sixth in the American League going into Thursday.

"I took things too — 'seriously' is the wrong word — but in 2016 I was really stressed all the time," Duffy, 27, said. "I played with a lot of anxiety. I was chasing hits, which is completely off my mental approach to the game the previous five years. For whatever reason, I kind of let my mind go a little bit in terms of not keeping myself in check.

"I was able to step back last year not playing and just kind of watching. Watching other guys' struggles and watching other guys do well and seeing the differences. Watching a guy struggle with the same swing he succeeded with.

"I was able to take a step back and remember what got me here. And for me it was just my mental approach to the game."

As simple as that sounds, Duffy prefers to keep it simple, which is to say consistent.

"When you're in the grind, you want results," he said. "It's not easy to clear the mechanics, to clear the results, to clear the statistics and the launch angle and all that stuff. You don't get hits by thinking about getting hits. Getting a hit is the final result of a process that gives you the best chance to get a hit.

"Thinking about your batting average doesn't help. Thinking 'I'm hitting .300 so I have to go 3-for-my-next-10 or it's going to go down' doesn't help."

Nor does trying to hit a home run every time up. Nor going to the video after every unsuccessful at-bat and thinking your swing needs to be overhauled.

Nor any of the other things he was doing after a slow start to 2016 got him pressing, spiraling "out of control," trying in every at-bat to get back on pace to match his solid 2015 numbers in his first, and thus far only, full major-league season, when he hit .295 with 12 homers, 77 RBIs and a .762 OPS.

How does he prefer to approach the plate? "Trying to go 1-for-1, seeing the ball as big as I can and swinging at a good pitch to hit."

Hitting coach Chad Mottola said he could tell during myriad conversations they had last year that Duffy was seeing the error of his ways, especially by watching others handle things poorly.

"We discussed a lot of philosophies accidentally," Mottola said.

In fact, Mottola learned from their talks as well.

"He was a great sounding board for me," he said. "I got to use him as another voice as a hitting coach."

With his mind right and the heel not even a thought, much less an ongoing issue — "a million times better than I could have even hoped" — Duffy is back to doing what he does best.

"The consistency is what I'm most proud of," he said, both in the production and the approach, no matter how he feels, physically or mentally, that day.

Manager Kevin Cash said he should be.

"You just rarely see him get out of his comfort zone," Cash said. "He's going to swing, and he'll chase some pitches, but they are always right around the zone. … Rarely do you see him get himself out."

Duffy, one of the team's hardest workers before every game, still has things to address. Specifically, a significant reverse-split imbalance in hitting .360 versus right-handers (second only to Houston's Jose Altuve among all big-leaguers with 150 at-bats) but only .217 versus lefties that Duffy said they've identified as mechanical and are correcting. He is just as driven to work on his defense, insisting on regular early sessions, and given a history with hamstring issues, he has to be cautious with fatigue.

But, still, given where he was last year, and what he wasn't doing, this year has thus far been a smashing success.

"I don't feel," he said, "like I've missed any time."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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