The crowd stood and cheered, first from behind the home dugout and quickly around the rest of this old stadium. Nights like this used to happen all the time. They come more often now, but Royals fans know to appreciate them with every chance.
This one had plenty to love. Danny Duffy, whom the Royals have long believed could thrive in nights like this, walked from the mound to his cheering friends and teammates having pitched the Royals into first place.
The calendar is only now turning to May, so this memory will be buried by the time we know how this all ends, but Duffy ended a concerning trend of underwhelming starts with the Royals' best pitching performance of the season in an 8-1 win against the rival Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday night.
“Yeah, I think it's the best one,” catcher Sal Perez says. “That's what I think.”
This is more than the numbers, impressive as they are: seven innings, seven hits, one run, two walks and seven strikeouts.
The Royals haven't been in such need of a good start all season. They had gone a full turn through the rotation with no starter making it to even six innings. They are pinging their way through a series of suspensions, and in the last eleven games have needed 43 2/3 innings from their bullpen. Chris Young is making a spot start on Friday.
The day before, back in Cleveland, pitching coach Dave Eiland approached and told Duffy he needed at least seven innings. Duffy delivered, and did it against one of the American League's best lineups.
“I felt like it was a responsibility tonight to go deeper into the game than I had been,” he says. “But that should be the responsibility every night.”
Duffy is spectacularly talented. No left-handed starter in baseball throws a harder fastball, according to FanGraphs, and there are nights – like Thursday – where that's not his best pitch.
His changeup was particularly devilish, and mixed with a curveball he changes speed with, overpowered the Tigers.
Duffy is one of those pitchers you can usually read pretty quickly. If his command is there, he's going to be good. If his command is there and his pitches are working, he's going to be great. And against Tigers, he was great.
“When Duffy comes in and throws strikes, that's it, it's going to be fun,” Perez says. “He's going to be fine, and you're going to enjoy that game. Sometimes he tries to do too much, then leaves a fastball over the plate or something. But when he comes like this...”
That he did this against the Tigers is particularly encouraging for Duffy and his teammates. This is a confident group, always has been, but last year took on the role of the Tigers' little brother.
The Royals won just six of 19 games against the Tigers, outscored by an aggregate 34 runs. Win just one more against Detroit, and Kansas City would've won the American League Central.
This particular game was about more than just Duffy, of course. The defense behind him did its usual thing, including a nice running catch by Jarrod Dyson in the first inning that Duffy called the biggest out of the game. Mike Moustakas got two more hits – he's hitting .356, and it's now May – and Eric Hosmer homered to dead center field. The Royals have outscored the Tigers by 11 runs this season.
But this is and always will be a team built on pitching and defense, so the Royals knew they had to get this recent trend of short or bad – or both – starts reversed.
Duffy's timing could not have been better. The Royals expect Young to be good in his spot assignment, but will likely need to cover an extra inning or two with relievers.
Duffy pitching into the eighth – combined with the cushion from the hitters – means the bullpen is now fully rested. The Royals used Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan for one inning each. Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera last pitched on Monday.
In the bigger picture, it is the continuation of what the Royals see as a high-end talent entering his prime. Duffy is 26 now, two full years removed from his return from Tommy John surgery.
Even with James Shields and Yordano Ventura, Duffy was the Royals' best starter for long stretches of last season. A rib injury that he and the team kept quiet limited him to relief appearances in the postseason.
That was a bizarre experience for Duffy. He is as committed to the team cause as anyone on the roster, so he was thrilled with the run to the World Series, but it's also frustrating to not be able to fully contribute.
Maybe this season is Duffy's chance. He certainly looks the part. He is a grown man now, the label of being young no longer quite fitting. On Thursday, he pitched the Royals into first place against the division bullies. It was the start of the year for the Royals so far.
He's good enough that this is the expectation, not the exception.