Early Monday morning, in the hours after his team had returned home from a 10-day road trip, Danny Duffy awoke to a vicious pain in his right side. He tried to move, but his body would not abide. He took a deep breath and his right side throbbed in pain.
“I could barely get up,” he said.
In that moment, Duffy, the Royals’ 28-year-old left-hander and rotation stalwart, knew something was seriously wrong. In nine weeks, it could be the morning the Royals, relegated to last place and eight games under .500 after a 10-7 loss to Detroit on Monday night, understood their fate as sellers in the late-summer trade market.
Such was the power of Monday’s news: One day after taking an awkward fall in a 10-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians, Duffy was diagnosed with a Grade 1-plus oblique strain and placed on the 10-day disabled list. The Royals indicated the recovery timeline could sideline Duffy for six to eight weeks. The loss could leave a gaping hole in the Royals’ rotation until the final weeks of July, just days before the July 31 trade deadline.
“Silver lining in everything: I’m thankful my arm is fine,” Duffy said, standing inside the Royals’ clubhouse Monday afternoon. “But this sucks, man. This is a big time for us to turn around the ship. And the boys are going to pick me up. I know that.”
The injury had occurred 24 hours earlier, on a harmless ground ball inside Progressive Field. Cleveland’s Michael Brantley had yanked a ground ball to the right of first baseman Eric Hosmer. As Hosmer ranged over, Duffy spun back around, hesitating for just a split second before sprinting to cover the bag. Hosmer flipped the ball toward the moving target. But Duffy came in too steep, overrunning the play.
“I tried to reach back with my right foot and tried to take two steps in a row with my left,” Duffy said. “You all saw what happened. It was probably the least athletic thing I’ve ever done.”
One day later, he kept replaying the moment in his mind. The circumstances only added to the agony. On Sunday, he had remained in the game, facing two more hitters after his tumble.
On the flight back to Kansas City, Duffy’s side felt tender but the discomfort was manageable. That changed after a night of sleep. The morning brought pain. Duffy contacted trainer Nick Kenney, and he underwent an MRI . The test confirmed the alarm. Duffy thought back to the moment of hesitation.
“If I get over in time, and I do what my instincts take me to do 99 percent of the time, we’re not even talking right now,” Duffy said. “It’s just an out. I accept full responsibility for that.”
For the Royals, the loss of a frontline starter for perhaps as long as two months struck hard as the team prepared to begin a 10-game home stand against Detroit, Cleveland and Houston.
Two months ago, this season began with designs on a third postseason appearance in four years. But after a nine-game losing streak and a stretch of offensive futility in April, the Royals (21-20) have spent most of May treading water while trying to make up ground in the standings. On Monday, after a series victory in Cleveland, they opened the day just 6 1/2 games out of first place in the American League Central, still on the fringes of the race after the disappointing start. But the loss of Duffy offered another swift blow.
Following a career season in 2016, Duffy entered Sunday with a 2.92 ERA in 10 starts before a frustrating performance against Cleveland. After witnessing a dip in his strikeout totals in April and early May, he had struck out 17 in his previous two starts, scoring consecutive victories over the New York Yankees.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” Duffy said. “I was starting to really come into my own, and I could feel it.”
The setback comes with starting pitcher Nathan Karns still on the disabled list after experiencing stiffness in his forearm in his last start on May 19. Karns is eligible to return Wednesday, but it appears likely he will need another week to heal, Royals manager Ned Yost said. The club will summon left-hander Eric Skoglund to fill in for Karns on Tuesday. Skoglund, a third-round pick in 2014, will make his major-league debut and could position himself as a long-term replacement for Duffy. The Royals could also lean on right-hander Jake Junis, who made a spot start against Minnesota on May 21 and has excelled at Class AAA Omaha.
“This ain’t the first time this has ever happened,” Yost said, attempting to downplay the injury. “We’ve experienced injuries before. We’re used to this. It’s part of the game. You make adjustments and move on.”
At the macro level, however, the loss could be season-defining, or at the least, season-changing. On Monday, the Royals had 63 days before the non-waiver trade deadline. They owned a spot in the cellar. And they must grapple with a roster filled with prospective free agents, including Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Jason Vargas.
The Royals, of course, could use the assets to replenish their minor-league system and jump-start a rebuilding effort before 2018. The final decisions will likely not come for another month. But the organizational calculus could be dictated by the club’s position in the middle of July. The loss of a top starting pitcher offers another road block in the path back to contention.
“Terrible, man,” catcher Salvador Perez said, before adding: “It’s going to be a little tough, but we’re going to handle it.”
As the rest of the clubhouse prepared for another series, Duffy stood near his locker, ready to speak to a collection of reporters just before 3 p.m.. He had never experienced an oblique strain, he said, the closest thing being an intercostal strain near his rib cage that forced him from the rotation in the 2014 playoffs.
Duffy vowed to come back as quickly as possible, to beat the projection of six to eight weeks. For now, though, the Royals will have to wait and rely on a collection of young pitchers.
On Monday, they returned to Kauffman Stadium and searched for traction after a solid stretch in May. Now they will have to make do without their most talented starting pitcher.
“I’m very bummed out today,” Duffy said. “But I’m going to keep the same mentality — try to keep the boys alive in here and just do my best to be a part of it.”