Royals' Duffy delivers on long-term promise

Coming into Saturday night’s game, the Kansas City Royals had lost the first two games of their series with the Orioles, which included being the victims of a complete-game shutout by Chris Tillman on Friday night. They needed to get something going. They did, but perhaps not how they expected.

Danny Duffy was once a top pitching prospect for the Royals. He’s also someone who nearly retired from baseball at the age of 21, but after realizing he missed the game he came back. And then he injured his UCL two years later (in 2012) and had season-ending Tommy John surgery. Duffy returned to action in 2013, but he has endured a bit of bumpy road to get to the majors this season. He was sent down to Triple-A just before the start of the season after he had lost out on a rotation spot to Yordano Ventura, then failed to make a splash in the bullpen. But after an injury forced veteran lefty Bruce Chen out of action, Duffy got the call to fill Chen’s spot in the rotation and he has made the most of it.

Duffy was making just his third start of the season. After he set down the Orioles in order in the top of the first, the Royals struck first when Nori Aoki scored on an RBI single by Billy Butler. The Royals would only need that one run to win because Duffy showed that, after all this time, he’s all the way back.

He set the Orioles down in order through the first six innings and did it efficiently, not wasting a lot of pitches. Amazingly, he didn’t record his first strikeout until the third inning when he got Caleb Joseph swinging, but the Orioles could not get anything going against Duffy and most of the contact they did make turned into ground-ball outs or popups.

Duffy has been known to get into long counts and fall into bad habits in the past so when he opened the fifth with three straight balls to Chris Davis, it looked like things could go from great to bad in a hurry. But it was at that point that Duffy recovered to throw Davis two strikes and then get the O’s slugger to fly out to left. Duffy followed that up by getting Nelson Cruz to ground out and J.J. Hardy to pop out to end the inning.

He continued to cruise along until the top of the seventh. Duffy had recorded his second strikeout of the game, getting Manny Machado looking, and it seemed as though something special could happen in Kauffman Stadium for the first time since Bret Saberhagen’s no-no in August 1991. But just as that good feeling was sweeping through the crowd, it was quickly yanked away when Adam Jones singled up the middle, just out of the reach of shortstop Alcides Escobar. The no-hitter and the perfecto were gone -- but Duffy didn’t let that faze him. He recovered to get Davis to pop out to short to end the inning.

Duffy pitched into the eighth inning for the first time in his big league career. By the time Royals manager Ned Yost walked out of the dugout to take the ball from his young pitcher, Duffy had thrown just 97 pitches, given up two hits -- Cruz knocked him out of the game with a single -- and struck out two batters without surrendering a walk. Duffy left the mound to a tremendous roar from the crowd in Kansas City … but the game wasn’t over. For all that, the Royals were still clinging to a 1-0 lead and the Orioles, tied for first place in the American League East, have some guys in their lineup who can change the game with one swing.

In the ninth, closer Greg Holland came in looking for his 11th save of the season. He made things interesting getting there: The inning started off with a strikeout of Steve Clevenger but Holland followed that up with a walk to Nick Markakis. Then Machado single. Holland recovered to get Jones swinging -- twice. It seems Jones was actually struck out, but home plate umpire Chris Segal called a foul tip on what looked like strike three. This could have been a big play but luckily for the Royals, Holland got Jones swinging for real for the second out. Davis stepped up, and Holland was all over the place, nearly hitting him before giving up a walk to load the bases.

So the Royals went from having a cool, calm and collected game they could feel good about to finding themselves mired in a sweaty, nerve-wracking, edge-of-your-seat game. Fortunately, Holland struck out Cruz to end the game. Nobody said it was going to be easy, even on a night when Duffy had made it look that way for the first six innings.

Between Saturday’s performance and his previous six-inning, one-run start, Duffy may have solidified his case for staying put in the Royals’ rotation. His ERA is down to a minuscule 1.42, and anybody pitching that well would be a big help to the Royals in 2014. It’s been a long time coming, but nights like this proved that he’s been very much worth the wait.

Stacey Gotsulias writes for It’s About The Money, the SweetSpot network blog on the New York Yankees. You can follow her on Twitter at @StaceGots.