From ECU club ball to the pros

Tanner Duncan didn’t make the Pirates as a walk-on, but his hard work on the school’s club team led to a pro contract

Tanner Duncan pitches in a game for the Buies Creek Astros of the Class A Carolina League. (Joe Dwyer / Buies Creek Astros)

BUIES CREEK — Everyone knows that in baseball, three strikes means you’re out. But Tanner Duncan isn’t one to take no for an answer.

So instead of giving up on his dream of playing professionally, he just kept right on swinging despite three failed attempts to make the team at East Carolina as a walk-on.

Duncan’s persistence led him to his school’s club team, where he improved both his confidence and the velocity on his fastball on the way to authoring the most improbable of success stories.

Offered a tryout by the Houston Astros after pitching ECU to the club national championship in 2017, the 23-year-old Tabor City native made the most of his opportunity by earning a free agent contract. He is now racing quickly up the minor league ladder after being promoted to Buies Creek of the Class A Carolina League in mid-May.

“It’s an unconventional thing that’s happened, for sure,” Duncan said last week after a game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. “I’m happy to be here, though. I’m just trying to take everything in stride, work hard and get better every day.”

That’s the same approach he’s been taking since the first time he was cut at ECU, as a good high school shortstop who was admittedly not ready to compete at the Division I college level.

He became a fixture in the weight room, determined to get bigger and stronger as he turned his focus to the Pirates’ well-run club program. Because he was playing behind an older, more established teammate, Duncan began pitching in an effort to get on the field as a freshman.

It turned out to be a career-changing move, though not quickly enough to earn him a spot on the varsity team.

In retrospect, he never stood much of a chance regardless of what position he played.

“The tryouts weren’t very extensive,” said the South Columbus High graduate, whose cousin McKenzie Gore was the first player selected in last year’s MLB draft, by the San Diego Padres. “That’s how that works. You go out there with a positive mindset, but you kind of know what they’re thinking already.”

Resigned to the fact that he’d never represent ECU on the intercollegiate level, Duncan began concentrating on earning his degree in kinesiology while continuing to play club ball. He filled out physically, evolving from a 175-pound freshman to a 215-pound senior, while his fastball jumped from the mid-80 mph range to the mid-90s.

He also developed a fierce competitiveness that was on full display in the 2017 club national championship game against Central Florida, a game he thought might be the final pitching performance of his life.

Locked in a scoreless duel only a few days after throwing 120 pitches in an early round win, Pirates’ coach Ben Fox told Duncan before the start of the eighth inning that he’d be taken out of the game if he allowed another runner.

So he didn’t.

He mowed down the next nine hitters in order before his teammates pushed across the winning run in the bottom of the 10th.

“When he makes up his mind that he’s going to do something,” Fox said, “he doesn’t let anybody stop him from doing it.”

Ironically, the first coach that cut Duncan from ECU’s varsity — current Yankees’ scout Billy Godwin — was among those that helped get the hard-throwing youngster onto the radar of major league teams.

It was former Pirates’ star Cory Scott, however, that made the biggest impact when he contacted Astros area scout Tim Bittner about Duncan after his performance in the club title game. Three days later, Duncan got a text from Bittner inviting him to Virginia to a closed tryout with two other pitchers.

“I had a good feeling about it,” Duncan said of the tryout. “Probably about 30 minutes later, I got the call asking if I could go (to extended spring training in Florida) the next morning.

“It was incredible. It was a pretty emotional time. It was a free agent contract, but it was a really big deal to finally have all my hard work pay off.”

Duncan’s contract might only have been an undrafted free agent deal. But as Buies Creek Astros pitching coach Drew French points out, it doesn’t matter how much the team has invested in you. Once you put on the uniform and start playing, the only thing that matters is performance.

And Duncan has performed well thus far.

He compiled a 2.16 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 37⅓ inning in Rookie Ball last summer. Then after starting this season at Quad City of the Class A Midwest League, recording three saves in six appearances, the 6-foot-2 right-hander was promoted to the more advanced Carolina League.

The new assignment was doubly exciting, since it’s close enough to home that his friends and family can attend his games. They’re not the only ones upbeat about what they’re seeing.

“The great thing about him is that we can mold him,” Buies Creek pitching coach Drew French said of Duncan. “He’s like a piece of clay we can start to drip some of our stuff on. He’s got really long arms and legs, so he’s got to learn to use the power and strength he has in the most athletic way on the mound.

“He’s starting to come into it. He’s a slow process. But from where he comes from, it’s a long way from where he’s been. He’s a good piece to our puzzle. We feel like his best days are coming.”

Though Duncan still has a long way to go to even begin thinking about the possibility of someday pitching in the majors, his club coach said it would be a mistake to count him out.

“Most people would have heard no and let it get to them,” Fox said. “They would have stopped chasing their dream. But he heard no from a lot of people a lot of times and that just pushed him. It gave him fuel to prove people wrong. It’s a great story about perseverance.”