A shadow fell on the Royals’ afternoon with one pitch. Danny Duffy stepped to his right, balanced himself on his left leg and lifted his right knee above his waist. As he unfurled a 91-mph fastball toward Salvador Perez, a grimace enveloped Duffy’s face, evidence of the left shoulder soreness that removed him from this 6-2 loss to the Yankees.
Inside the bullpen before the game, Duffy could not loosen up. He sat down for a few minutes as his teammates played the top of first. During warmups, Duffy shook his left hand after each throw. His arm felt like “I had a vise grip on my shoulder,” he said, and his first pitch caused a surge of discomfort he would compare to his brush with Tommy John surgery in 2012.
“I don’t have words for it, man, because I’ve been down this road before with my elbow,” Duffy said. “It sucks to have to answer these questions. But I know I have to. Basically, it was painful. But I have a good feeling about it. I don’t think that this is going to end my season.”
After that fastball, Duffy would pitch no longer on this day. The Royals ticketed him for an MRI in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon and an appointment with the team physician. Manager Ned Yost expressed his hope Duffy would only miss one start, with Liam Hendriks as his probably replacement. The prospects could be far grimmer, depending on the impeding examination.
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Perez noticed the discomfort immediately. He gloved the first pitch, waved toward the dugout and tapped his own shoulder. Mike Moustakas barreled toward the mound to call time. Duffy whispered something to Moustakas, and the third baseman nodded toward the bench.
Yost and trainer Nick Kenney joined a crowd in the center of the diamond. Duffy informed them he could not get his arm loose.
“He didn’t feel like a pop or anything,” Yost said. “Just it was real tight, a little bit sore.”
The team marked this campaign as Duffy’s first without restriction post-surgery. He answered the call in splendid fashion, with a 2.44 ERA and 133 innings pitched in his 22 starts. At times, he appeared to be the best pitcher on this defensive-minded club. Now his availability comes into question.
“I’ll look at the MRI before I start worrying about it,” Yost said.
Duffy attempted to stay upbeat about his situation. He cracked a few gallows-humor jokes with reporters. His voice cracked, ever so slightly, as he spoke. He was asked how he generated his optimism.
“I just have a good feeling about it,” Duffy said. “I’m not going to sit here and say I feel good. But I’ve just got a good feeling about it. I feel like if it was really, really messed up, it would feel really bad right now. And right now, it’s just achy, some achiness. But during the game, it wasn’t just an ache.”
As Duffy walked through the dugout tunnel into the clubhouse, Billy Butler pointed to his shoulder and shook his head. Duffy’s absence cast a pall over the game. His replacement, Hendriks, fell victim to a steady fusillade from the Yankees. Two of Hendriks’ warm-up pitches failed to find Perez’s mitt. The subsequent nine innings were just as shaky.
The Royals wasted at-bats and failed to advance runners. Eric Hosmer smashed a one-out double in the fourth. Alcides Escobar added a one-out double in the fifth, and took third on an error on the play. Neither advanced an inch. Yankees starter Brandon McCarthy muffled his opponents for 6 2/3 innings.
The Yankees tagged Hendriks for seven hits and four runs in four innings. Mark Teixeira ripped an RBI single in the first. Two innings later, Hendriks allowed a leadoff double to rookie catcher John Ryan Murphy, an RBI triple to Jacoby Ellsbury and a sacrifice fly by Derek Jeter.
“The thing about (Hendriks) is he throws strikes,” Yost said. “He was erratic in the zone today.”
The defense did not resemble its usual security blanket. Instead, a fourth-inning run scored on an errant pickoff throw by Salvador Perez. He had attempted to nab Chase Headley at third base. The ball sailed well over Moustakas’ upward leap.
Casey Coleman yielded two runs in the fifth. By then, the game had drifted out of reach, and all concern resided with Duffy.
When this season began, the club was unsure what it could expect from him. He lost to Yordano Ventura in the contest for the final spot in the rotation. He looked homer-prone and inexact in the thin air and dry heat of the Cactus League. He flunked an audition for the bullpen in March and received a ticket to Class AAA Omaha.
Duffy was not long for the Pacific Coast League. The Royals recalled him on April 12 to plug a hole in the bullpen. Duffy buoyed the relief corps for a few weeks before Bruce Chen’s lingering back trouble created an opening in the rotation. Duffy entered the more familiar role and never looked back.
Duffy required 114 pitches to tally 6 2/3 innings in his last start. The outing swelled his innings total to a career-high 147 2/3, including his six innings to start the season with Omaha. Last month, general manager Dayton Moore insisted Duffy would not be held to a team-imposed innings cap, like the one the Nationals enforced on Stephen Strasburg in 2012.
After he spoke with reporters, Duffy collapsed into his chair. He propped his face in his hands. Teammates offered fist-bumps and words of encouragement. He stared ahead into a future featuring a flight back to Kansas City and a date with an MRI tube.
“It’s not what I want to do,” Duffy said. “But it’s what is necessary. I’ve been, I don’t want to say fortunate to have Tommy John, but I’ve been fortunate enough to know what it takes to get back. So you’ve got to take everything as a positive.
“I’m just very, very lucky to have the people I have in my corner, on and off the field. I’m very lucky to have the support system that I do. These guys will pick me up as we go. When I get back, I’m going to do everything I can to repay them for it.”