CHICAGO – The trip from St. Louis to Memphis was a lonely one. It's almost 5 hours by car, a straight shot down Interstate 55, or an hour by plane, and whether by land or air, it seemed to last much longer for Chris Duncan.
No amount of time can quantify the difference between the major leagues and Triple-A, a trek trod by Duncan twice this year. And it was not that Duncan became a better player on his last trip to Memphis, because he didn't, and it was not that the third time was a charm, because it wasn't. What, then, to explain Chris Duncan, a 25-year-old rookie, outhomering, outslugging and outhitting Albert Pujols, of all people, since his call-up to St. Louis on July 3?
"For some reason, my whole career, August has always been my best month," Duncan said, and it might be a reasonable explanation if there weren't a better one.
He's actually getting to play.
Over the last six weeks, Duncan has started 31 games. He has socked 11 home runs in 128 at-bats, gotten on base more than 43 percent of the time and slugged .680, which puts him behind only Chipper Jones, Alfonso Soriano, David Ortiz and Adam LaRoche among hitters with more than 100 at-bats since his recall. Duncan has settled into the No. 2 spot in the Cardinals' order, right ahead of Pujols, and given their lineup the punch it so sorely lacked next to Pujols and Scott Rolen.
"He's not going down now," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
Whether La Russa is a baseball Einstein or a mad scientist who tinkers too much, it doesn't take a genius to keep Duncan around. His predecessors – So Taguchi, John Rodriguez, Scott Spiezio, Hector Luna, Skip Schumaker, Larry Bigbie, Timo Perez, John Gall and Juan Encarnacion – combined for five home runs in 386 at-bats in left field this season.
Duncan has 10 in 97 at-bats at the position, his power finally matching his frame, which, at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, always screamed potential.
Actually, Duncan has always been something of a project, looked upon as such because of his last name. As the son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, he was scrutinized from the minute he joined the organization in 1999 as a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds.
He spent three years at Low-A Peoria and despite struggling in 2003 at High-A Palm Beach, was promoted the next season to Double-A Tennessee. A solid year there and another one in 2005 at Memphis earned him a September call-up, and Duncan hit the final home run at Busch Stadium.
With Pujols entrenched at first base, Duncan seemed stuck at Memphis. St. Louis summoned him for a week in May, when it didn't need a fifth starter, and he hit a home run in his first big-league start. The Cardinals shipped Duncan out to make room for … Sidney Ponson, a move that worked about as well as Ponson's diet.
Duncan returned again at the beginning of June – "To replace Albert Pujols," he noted – and at times he looked great (two big home runs) while at others he looked lost (13 strikeouts, no walks). His biggest moment was getting plunked by Chicago White Sox reliever David Riske, which led to Ozzie Guillen saying he didn't realize Duncan was Dave's kid, which led to Dave calling Ozzie a liar, which put Duncan right in the middle of an argument he neither started nor wanted.
"Believe me, being my son does not help," Dave said. "I don't want to get into that. It hasn't worked to his advantage. It hasn't given him any special opportunities.
"When your opportunity comes, you've got to do something to get people's attention."
With his last 45 at-bats – a .511 batting average, seven homers, 10 RBI, 13 runs and a National League Player of the Week award accumulated – consider it done.
"I don't think there's any doubt," La Russa said, "that as far as Cardinal fans, Chris is standing alone with what he's done for us. …
"When you start making out the lineup, he's about as automatic as anybody in our lineup right now."
That Duncan wedged himself into the lineup of a Cardinals team in line for a postseason spot makes him blush. His cheeks pinken easily, thanks to a complexion that makes Casper look like he just spent a week in Cabo. Duncan has been around for all of 168 at-bats this season, and he's only a rookie, and, well, he grew up in a baseball family that taught him to toot one's horn is unbecoming.
"We've got Pujols and Rolen and [Jim] Edmonds and Encarnacion," Duncan said. "I'll let them carry us."
So long as he can stay for the ride. He knows he's a lot closer to a playoff trip than one back to Memphis.