Ear-buds riveted in to the music of “Rebelution,” Danny Duffy was feeling “good vibes” as he sauntered into the visitor’s clubhouse Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium and scanned the room for his elusive locker.
“What number am I again?” he said, with that sly smile of his.
This mellow mind-set was an encouraging sign from the mercurial Duffy, whose intensity and introspection can be as much his undoing as his ally.
Take it from manager Ned Yost.
Asked before the game about Duffy’s frame of mind, Yost shrugged and said he figured Duffy was “alright” after struggling in his last two starts … including last time out with “dead-arm.”
“I mean, I can’t look into his brain,” he said.
And take it from Duffy, one of the most accessible, accountable and just plain real Royals.
“I’ve gotten into trouble thinking too much,” he said.
Even for a guy who in the last four years left the game for two months for personal reasons and has endured Tommy John surgery, this season has provided ample reasons for him to retreat into that space.
But time and again, in this case through a failed initial bid for the No. 5 job to being relegated to starting the season in Class AAA Omaha, Duffy’s resilience keeps resounding.
And his start against the Cardinals on Monday served as vivid testimony of his resolve and still-emerging potential.
After being pelted for 11 runs (10 earned) over his last two starts, Duffy gave up no runs, a lone hit and one walk while striking out five in six innings to pave the way for the Royals to beat the Cardinals 6-0.
“I thought he was fantastic,” said Yost, who afterward told Duffy he had pitched — not merely thrown — a great game. “He changed speeds, he kept the ball down. He was just right on top of his game tonight.”
This was important in itself, of course, in a season in which the Royals are supposed to be coming of age to make a playoff bid but are flashing only occasional flickers of offensive life.
Their margin for error is downright emaciated, and they’ve already squandered a few gifts along the way to being 27-30 now.
But Duffy also is a crucial variable in broader ways for the Royals, who believe he has the stuff of a No. 1 starter.
Although overshadowed by the ruckus over rookie Yordano Ventura this season, Duffy is just as vital to the grand scheme if this Royals regime is going to be able to put in place a cornerstone it hasn’t been able to install: home-grown starting pitching.
And there’s all the more of a premium on that with anchor starter James Shields likely gone after this season, with Ventura’s arm scare last week and the fact that prime prospect Kyle Zimmer may effectively miss all of 2014 with his various ailments.
Moreover, Duffy in a sense epitomizes the Royals and their challenges: Suddenly 25 now, he’s hovering just steps away from meaningful, consistent breakthroughs but still prone to pitfalls.
So is he trending more towards being the pitcher who gave up just two runs in his first three starts of the season, including retiring the first 20 men he faced May 17 against Baltimore?
Or is he just as likely to be the guy who gave up six runs and seven hits and five walks in four innings against Houston last week?
The answer, of course, is both.
Which is to say … it’s a lot mental.
Consider, for instance, the fact that part of his dominance of Baltimore was fashioned by generally throttling back his fastball to the low 90s.
Consider that part of his issue against Houston was being constrained to throwing … in the low 90s.
The difference in the results, then, arguably was a matter of state of mind.
“You’ve got to learn to be able to pitch with what you’ve got on any given day,” Yost said.
Yost, who formerly coached with the Atlanta Braves, harkened to the likes of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz early in their careers.
“There were days where they came out and didn’t have (anything), and they navigated through it,” he said. “The first time you’re going through it, you think you’ve got to power through it, and that doesn’t work. You have to work within it, in the confines of it.”
Duffy took another step in that direction on Monday, when he said he still didn’t “have as much behind the ball as I normally do.”
Even so, even without peeking at the radar results, he could tell his fastball was consistently in the mid-90s because of the way it was “running” and “had life on it.”
He also is continuing to take other meaningful steps simply with his demeanor, which used to be a dead giveaway of his frustrations and maybe even agitated them further.
Now, he’s learning that even when a pitch doesn’t go where he meant it to that it helps to act otherwise, take a deep breath and think about what’s in front of him.
“It’s a game that keeps going on whether you go with it or not,” he said. “I just have to remember that there’s always the next pitch.”
And remember he doesn’t have to think so much.
“I was hit or miss with my mind a lot …,” he said. “I’m starting to learn that my stuff will get a lot of people out.”