In the moments after the first inning, after Danny Duffy had thrown 35 pitches and the Detroit Tigers had scored two runs and the strike zone had shrunk to the bare minimum, the Royals’ most dependable starter looked toward the ground and sauntered off the field at Comerica Park, taking a seat inside the first-base dugout.
All year long, Duffy had avoided nights like this one, when his command escaped him and his pitch count elevated, when the wheels fell off by the middle innings.On Friday night, in the first game of the final road series of 2016, the old malady resurfaced.
“I just didn’t do a good job of executing,” Duffy would say.
In an 8-3 loss to the Tigers, an inefficient Duffy was raked for six runs in just 3 2/3 innings, struggling to command his slider and fastball. As the Royals ventured into downtown Detroit on a cool September evening, he needed 99 pitches to record just 11 outs.
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Duffy could have blanched at a first-inning strike zone that appeared to squeeze him, setting the tone for the evening. He could have deflected after carrying a 12-2 record and 3.18 ERA into the series opener. Instead, he pointed the finger squarely at himself.
“I did not execute,” he said. “I cost my team a chance to win today. I just didn’t have it. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll be out there every five days, and be ready to go again.”
Duffy said he could not command his slider. When he attempted to throw it for a strike, he left it up. When he tried to put it on an opposing batter’s back foot, he left it in the zone. By the time the first inning was over, he had issued three walks in one inning for the first time since last May.
“I was trying to get five (innings) for him but his pitch count got so high,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He just couldn’t get settled in. He couldn’t get his tempo.”
Duffy dropped to 12-3 while his ERA jumped to 3.43. The Royals, 77-77, sunk back to .500 after their fourth straight loss and their ninth in their last 13 games.
On the whole, you could perhaps pin this performance on an oft-reliable starting pitcher having an off night against a team still in the heart of the American League wild-card race. But as the Royals arrived in Detroit for their final road games of the year, it was perhaps easy to see a team running on empty.
A week ago, a four-game sweep at the hands of the woeful Oakland A’s had dulled any momentum that remained after an August run. On Friday, the Royals still looked somewhat haggard after suffering three straight losses in Cleveland.
Some of this, of course, was a credit to Tigers rookie starter Michael Fulmer, who yielded just one earned run while striking out nine in seven innings. But to see the Kansas City offense on Friday was to see an attack that had slipped into another road funk.
“He was really good,” Yost said of Fulmer. “There was a big difference this time since we saw him last time. He was right on top of his game. (He had his) really good slider down in the zone. Good fastball on both corners. Good changeup. (He was) really on top of his game.”
The Royals were playing without catcher Salvador Perez, who received a day off to rest a sore knee. With eight games remaining, they inched closer to elimination from the American League wild-card race, falling 6 1/2 games behind Detroit, 83-70, which occupies the second spot.
And most pressing, perhaps, is the Royals’ offense, which ranks 14th in the American League with 634 runs scored. After Friday’s loss, the lineup had managed just nine runs across four games on this road trip. The first run on Friday came after a long replay review in the sixth inning. The final two came when Jarrod Dyson stroked a two-run triple with two outs in the ninth inning.
The replay review, which came after Kendrys Morales grounded into an inning-ending double play in the sixth, sparked a momentary protest from Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who believed the Royals were late in issuing the challenge. But Yost said the late challenge was the result of a communication error between the Royals’ bench and home plate umpire Laz Diaz. Specifically, Diaz couldn’t hear Yost.
“We weren’t late,” Yost said. “I told Laz that, and he said, ‘I know that. It was just too late.’ You’re supposed to be able to stop the guys on the field. But I’m screaming and yelling and walking on the grass to get Laz’s attention and we just couldn’t.”
For seven innings, Fulmer, the Tigers’ emerging front-line starter, had flummoxed the Royals with a four-seam fastball in the mid 90s and a biting slider. At the very least, the challenge broke the shutout. But for one night here in Detroit, the Tigers looked like the team vying for a playoff spot. The Royals looked like a team finishing out the string.
“They’re in it,” Duffy said. “They’re fighting for a spot. You saw it with us last year. They are fighting for their life.”