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From club baseball to pro ball, Tanner Duncan making impact for Astros

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Duncan, who was cut three times from the varsity team at ECU, is now making waves in the low levels of the Astros organization.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

By the time Tanner Duncan stepped onto the mound for his latest tryout last June, the idea of trying out for a team was second nature.

He had tried out for everything from T-ball teams in his hometown of Tabor City, North Carolina, to a Division I college baseball team nearly 15 years later. Some, like those baseball auditions growing up in Tabor City, went really well. Others, like his attempts to make the varsity baseball team at East Carolina University, did not.

Duncan, who was 22 at the time, led the ECU club baseball team to a National Club Baseball Association World Series title on June 1, being named MVP of the tournament after pitching 10 scoreless innings against Central Florida in the title game. Two weeks later, he watched as 40 rounds of the MLB Draft went by without his name (or the names of any other club players) being called and began thinking about how to put his kinesiology degree to use.

Three days after the draft, Duncan got a text from Tim Bittner, an area scout with the Houston Astros. Bittner, who had Duncan recommended to him by a scouting friend who lived in near ECU’s campus in Greenville, had some interest in signing Duncan as an undrafted free agent.

Bittner asked Duncan, who had tried out and failed to make the ECU varsity team on three separate occasions, if he’d do one more tryout, this time for the Astros. Needless to say, the stakes were higher than ever before.

“It was a huge opportunity, but I tried to not make it bigger than what it was,” Duncan said. “When it boils down to it, it was just a bullpen... that was going to decide my future.”

This is the story of how Tanner Duncan became one of the most unlikely professional baseball players ever.

***

Growing up in Tabor City, Duncan always had aspirations of playing baseball in college, and, eventually, the pros. He had just two offers out of high school: one to play both football and baseball at Guilford College in Greensboro, and another to play just baseball for Methodist University in Fayetteville.

Instead, Duncan decided he’d try to walk on at ECU, and attended a tryout as a freshman. A shortstop at the time, Duncan did well in the field, but the coaches didn’t think he was ready to hit Division I pitching.

“Just like every high schooler that comes into college, I thought I was good enough to play at a Division I level,” Duncan said. “I had a good tryout, throwing some from the outfield and short and taking some BP. I thought I performed pretty well but I understand at that time why I got cut. I don’t think I was there yet.”

Duncan wouldn’t let his first rejection derail his desire to keep playing baseball, so he searched for other ways to stay in the game. He wandered to the club baseball booth at orientation, met then-head coach Joe Caracci, and decided he’d join the club team for the time being.

The club team already had an established shortstop, Brian Burgess, so Duncan joined the roster as a pitcher. Though he had thrown a bit as a freshman on the junior varsity team and again as a senior at South Columbus High School, he had to adjust to full-time mound work.

After two successful years as a pitcher for the club team, Duncan tried out once again for ECU’s varsity squad as a junior and, once again, was cut. A year later, in what the five-year student considers his “first senior year,” he got the same result. Despite receiving three rejections in three attempts, Duncan never considered quitting baseball.

“Quit? No,” Duncan said. “I always wanted to play club baseball. The atmosphere we had out there, just being out there with that group of dudes was something I really enjoyed doing. We were really good. We played nationally ranked junior colleges every year and competed with them, so I knew it was good baseball. Even though I got cut, I still had aspirations beyond college. Typically when someone tells me I can’t do something, I try to do it. It fuels me even more.”

Duncan developed a special bond with assistant coach Ben Fox, who became the team’s head coach for Duncan’s fifth and final season in 2017. Fox, a 2012 ECU graduate who himself played on the club team, was continually impressed with Duncan’s drive and work ethic.

“He’s a special kid,” Fox said. “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he has at anything in my life. The average person probably would’ve quit. Instead, with Tanner, he went to the gym every day, for like four or five hours. That’s all he wanted to do.”

Duncan, who weighed 170 pounds in high school, hit the gym harder with every rejection he received. He recently weighed in at 215 pounds Throwing more often, lifting weights, and doing weighted ball drills all helped increase the velocity on his fastball, which sits at 90-93 mph, and topped out at 95 mph this spring.

“I was playing baseball and kind of doing college on the side,” Duncan said. “That’s what I was dedicated to and driven to do. I had that mentality. I knew I was good enough.”

ECU’s club team reached the national championship game in 2016, falling to Nevada, 7-4, in a game Duncan started. That fueled Duncan to work even harder to claim a title in his fifth and final season, in which he went 9-1 with an 0.84 ERA while striking out 132 hitters in 75 innings.

Fox’s team reached the championship game for the second straight year in 2017, playing less than two hours from campus in Holly Springs, North Carolina. The opponent, Central Florida, would be different. But the man on the mound wouldn’t change.

***

The 2017 championship game, which featured two first-team All Americans in Duncan and UCF’s Kenneth Donaldson on the bump, was scoreless through nine innings. Both pitchers allowed just four hits all game, with Duncan striking out 14 Knights and Donaldson striking out five Pirates. Both pitchers’ pitch counts soared well past 100.

Duncan, who had played baseball for the large majority of his life, knew there was a good possibility his career was coming to a close. So he decided, and Fox agreed, that he wasn’t coming out of his last game.

“I tried to steer away from that, but that was the thought process that was going the whole time,” Duncan said. “I wanted to keep going because I didn’t know if I’d ever get the opportunity to play again.”

With Duncan sitting at about 90 pitches through seven innings, Fox approached him to tell him he was coming out of the game if he allowed any baserunners after that point.

“I remember vividly telling him that UCF’s best hitter was coming up. I asked him how he was feeling, and he kept telling me he was good,” Fox said. “I kept warning him about Matt Sanchez, their big hitter coming up. And I remember him looking me in my eyes and asking me if I was doubting him. I told him I would never”.

Duncan didn’t allow a single baserunner for the next three innings, retiring nine in a row and reaching 139 pitches less than a week after throwing over 120 in another game. Though his arm was, in his words, “hanging,” he was determined to go until the job was done.

ECU walked off with a win on an RBI double from Nick Venditti in the bottom of the 10th inning, securing the championship for Duncan and the Pirates. For any club player, it would be the perfect ending to a long baseball career. But those closest to Duncan knew his career wasn’t done.

“I told him as he was coming off the mound in the 10th, ‘you’ve got a future to look forward to,’” Fox said. “We can’t hurt you today because it ain’t gonna be the last time you pitch.”

***

Three days after receiving Bittner’s invitation to the Astros’ tryout, Duncan, accompanied by Fox, set out on the drive to Randolph-Macon College, located near Richmond. On the ride and in their hotel room that Tuesday night, the mentor and student realized the gravity of what lay ahead in the next 24 hours.

“We talked about the potential for a life-changing experience the next day,” Fox said. “I knew that he always succeeded under pressure. I kept telling him over and over the night before.”

Wednesday morning arrived, and Fox and Duncan set out for the tryout. After some trouble finding the field, they were surprised to find just a few people at the facility—Bittner and two other prospects the Astros were trying out.

Bittner, who has since left the Houston organization for a crosschecking job with the White Sox, had never seen Duncan in person before the showcase. In fact, Duncan had never really knowingly thrown with a big-league scout watching him before, despite rumors that some had been lurking when the club played North Carolina at the USA Baseball complex in Cary earlier that year.

Once Duncan stepped up and delivered his first pitch, Fox knew his student had his best stuff. 35-40 pitches later, with Bittner filming Duncan’s delivery throughout the session, Duncan asked his coach how he thought it went.

“Once he got on the mound, I could just tell from the very first pitch it was something I needed to remember for a long time,” Fox said. “Every pitch, I got a little more excited. I started getting goosebumps knowing this was about to change his life. I told him he did what it’s gonna take to make it.”

Thirty minutes later, Fox was proven right. Bittner, impressed with what he had seen, had gotten approval from his bosses in Houston and offered Duncan a spot in the organization.

“I had to pull over,” Duncan said. “It was an emotional time, especially having Ben being there with me after winning the World Series together.”

“We screamed and yelled and got excited at first, and then it brought tears to both of our eyes,” Fox said. “We had worked together so long to get him there.”

Bittner, who covered Virginia and the Carolinas for Houston, said prospects like Duncan usually slip off scouts’ radars due to the time commitment of scouting Division I programs, junior colleges, and top high school prospects before the draft.

“Nobody was able to see the East Carolina club team because of other priorities,” Bittner said, laughing. “[The day I saw Tanner] might’ve been the best day of his life. I don’t know. It was the only time I had ever seen him. He threw strikes and had a workable delivery, and it was one of those deals where our player development was in need of some arms fairly quick.”

Bittner and Astros assistant general manager Mike Elias, who runs the club’s amateur department, both agreed that the signing of a club player was completely unprecedented for them. Elias said in an email that the situation was “exceedingly rare,” noting that the idea of scouting club players rarely ever crosses the minds of executives or scouts.

Duncan is the latest on a very short list of club players to make the jump to pro ball, according to Sandy Sanderson, president of the National Club Baseball Association. The last to jump straight from club ball to an affiliated team before Duncan was Colorado State right-hander Nate Nowicki, who was selected in the 19th round of the 2003 draft by the Marlins, with the most notable case being righty Steve Schmoll, who appeared for Maryland’s club team and reached the majors with the Dodgers in 2005.

“This is uncharted territory. Completely new waters for me,” Bittner said. “But it was enough to give [Duncan] a chance and he’s taken that opportunity and run with it.”

***

Duncan wasn’t the only member of his family to reach the professional ranks in 2017, though the other relative took a much more direct path. Duncan’s first cousin, MacKenzie Gore, was the third overall pick of last year’s draft by the Padres and signed with the club for a $6.7 million bonus.

“I tell a lot of people I’m the reason for his success,” Duncan said. “I kind of molded him. I was really mean to him when we were younger, so I hardened him up and made him a tough kid.”

Gore, who is considered one of the top 20 prospects in all of baseball, has enjoyed watching his older cousin from afar.

“It’s been really cool to see him get into pro ball after playing club baseball,” Gore said. “I want to see him have success. The family back home is excited having people in the family playing professional baseball.”

Duncan has had success in his first 10 months as a professional, posting a 2.17 ERA and striking out 31 in 37.1 innings for Houston’s Gulf Coast League affiliate last year. He made the team’s Single-A affiliate in Quad Cities, and has worked out of the bullpen to start the season.

Elias, who oversees Houston’s player development department, believes Duncan’s early success is no fluke.

“Tanner has been performing well so far in the Midwest League and we look forward to more,” Elias said. “He is a legit pro arm with 4 pitches, an 88-92 mph fastball that he locates well and shows some explosive qualities crossing the plate, a downer curve, short slider and a developing change that he’s working to get more fade on. We think he’s got a shot to help our org.”

Duncan attributes his success to the quiet confidence that led him to persevere throughout college.

“I kind of had a perception of what professional baseball was going to be like,” Duncan said. “I thought everybody was going to be a stud. I’m not saying they’re not good players, but I expected that everyone would be an absolute stud who mashed at the plate. I was a little worried when I came in.

“Then I realized I could compete at that level, and got that confidence that helped me out a lot. You just focus on what you’ve got and not make it bigger than what it is. That made me realize I’m capable of competing at this level.”