Before the first game of his junior year of high school, Danny Duffy ran to center field to stretch, stepped in a gopher hole and suffered a stress fracture that cost him most of the season.
“Custodians weren’t doing their job,” Duffy said, laughing at the freak incident.
But the left-hander returned his senior year to forge a 0.60 ERA, strike out 127 in 58 2/3 innings and be plucked by the Royals in the third round of the 2007 draft.
In 2010, he quit baseball for two months for personal reasons that Duffy still prefers to keep private.
“You know what: I battle with my head a lot,” he said. “I was a kid. I’m still a kid, mentally. But back then I was not ready mentally to be where I was. And the Royals were gracious enough to let me go home and reassess.”
He was vaguely missing the game until his competitive instincts reignited when he saw Jason Heyward hit a home run off Carlos Zambrano on “Baseball Tonight.”
“ ‘That’s where I need to be, because I own that guy,’ ” he thought. “That was literally it.”
So only a year later, Duffy made his major-league debut and was growing when in 2012 he suffered an elbow injury that left him facing Tommy John surgery.
Naturally, back he soared last year, capping his comeback with a 1.85 ERA and 2-0 record in five crunch-time starts before he was shut down with an elbow strain.
So Duffy is hard-wired with resilience.
And that’s worth remembering as he continues auditioning for the Royals’ fifth starter role after an unsettling performance Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds at Surprise Stadium.
Yes, it’s only spring training, but every impression counts for Duffy, 25.
He may or may not be with the team in Kansas City if he doesn’t make the rotation because the organization’s over-riding notion is to continue developing him as a starter. That may be better fostered in Class AAA Omaha than in bullpen duty with the parent club.
The Reds mashed him for four runs in the first, mostly inflicted by a double and back-to-back home runs. Ryan Ludwick’s homer was so obvious off the crack of the bat that Duffy didn’t even turn his head to follow its arc.
The apparently rattled Duffy added a wild pitch and a hit batsman in the inning, which also featured two Royals errors.
Indicative of the day, his luck seemed only to turn after Chris Heisey opened the second by smacking a ball off Duffy’s right hip that ricocheted to first baseman Eric Hosmer for a ground out in his more orderly only other inning of work.
Afterward, Duffy couldn’t help but acknowledge his distressing numbers in the game the Royals rallied to win 9-5.
But he also said he felt good about his location and suggested in a bigger park such as Kauffman Stadium much of the long-ball damage would have been outs.
“Ninety-five percent of the time if I throw like I did today,” he said, “I’m going to put up zeroes.”
The inning, though, was too unsightly to dismiss.
“I didn’t like his location in the first inning,” manager Ned Yost said, adding, “You know, he was just off a little bit. And some of those pitches probably could have been called strikes. But where he got hurt were kind of pitches up in the zone.”
Yost then considered the second inning: “Bam, he was great. Good recovery.”
That’s totally in character for Duffy, whose grit and sincerity have made him a fan favorite even before he’s become entrenched.
That knack for resolve might be innate, but it also was cultivated by his parents.
Dan Duffy is an investigator with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, and Deanna Duffy is a former California Highway Patrol officer who has a gun for an arm, that is, that she apparently passed along.
“She was a heck of a softball player back in her day, and she actually used to catch me until I started touching 90 (mph); my mom is the reason I’m here,” he said, adding, “My parents always taught me to never give up, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 5-foot-2 and throwing 70 (mph).”
That wasn’t a random example for Duffy. He was about 5-2 and not quite breaking 70 mph as a freshman in high school.
Three years later, he was 6-3 and snapping pitches off in the mid-90s.
“I was blessed with a growth spurt,” he said.
He’s had a similarly significant emotional growth spurt in the last few years, even if he still has to contend with getting over-excited when he’s pitching.
“A lot of the battle is mentally, and I’m definitely a person who’s in my own head a lot,” he said. “You’ve got to have a strong foundation. When I quit, I didn’t. I didn’t have a very good base. And I had quite the temper when I came up.
“A lot of people have terrible coping skills, and I was definitely guilty of that when I was younger.”
One skill he’s developed now is, simply, walking.
“It doesn’t work for everybody, but I just go on a lot of walks and I try to reflect,” he said. “I’ll go on six-mile walks sometimes. Just try to get out of my own head and realize it’s about the big picture and not about one start or one appearance.”
That’s a different exercise than merely trying to forget something that went awry.
And just as he’ll admit he’s “putting a lot of pressure on myself” to make the rotation, just as he’ll explain “I know I’m a different cat mentally,” Duffy explains this processing with a certain refreshing honesty.
“It’s feeling everything, but letting it go,” he said. “Because you have to feel things to get through them. If you try to mask it with anything, you’re not going to get through it. And a lot of people mask it with dangerous stuff.
“I’m pretty straight and narrow, and I just try to get through stuff the best I can.”
No matter how many gopher holes and other traps are waiting.