Royals pitcher Danny Duffy is keeping it real

07/26/2014 5:29 PM

07/27/2014 12:30 AM

Danny Duffy is as real a Royal as there is. And not just in the sense that he’s tweeted “bury me a Royal.” Or because he’s as dedicated to the band of brothers he came up with as he is to his own career.

But he’s also real in a way that should resonate with anyone who has lamented the ever-increasing buffer zones between athletes and fans, both directly and via the media.

Athletes have become so rich as to generally no longer really live among mere mortals. Sports media coverage has become so saturated and unfiltered as to render quaint any notion of privacy.

In that cycle, we all get fed more and more gobbledygook and talking points and even illusion.

Then there’s someone like Duffy, who actually looks you in the eye and listens and thinks when he speaks … and remains one of you.

Like Joe Fan himself, he keeps a picture of Kobe Bryant in his locker. On Friday, clad in a T-shirt bearing the name of Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi, Duffy kicked a soccer ball around by himself at Kauffman Stadium.

He might ask you about what Sporting Park is like or recommend music (“Counterfeit Love” and “De-Stress” by Rebelution). And he isn’t afraid to tell you that growing up he had a temper and that he’s “battled with my head a lot.”

This authenticity is in short supply.

Then consider that Duffy also has had some seemingly star-crossed times, once quitting the game for unspecified personal reasons and requiring Tommy John surgery.

So there is a certain reassurance and inspiration in what is happening now for an appealing and regular guy who just happens to have an extraordinary talent.

Duffy has arrived, even if the term seems precarious and surely would make him flinch as if it’s a jinx.

But since June 1, no Royals starter has been better than Duffy, who has a 1.86 ERA in that span, a development perhaps muted by having only a 3-5 record to show in that time.

His start Thursday against Cleveland (seven innings, two hits, no runs), was his third straight of six or more innings in which he allowed zero or one earned runs.

The performance was reminiscent of his domination in May against Baltimore, holding the Orioles hitless into the seventh inning.

Now, this sample size doesn’t suddenly make him the staff ace, and it’s no assurance of an infallible future

But it does mean that manager Ned Yost can go from hoping Duffy will emerge to expecting high-quality starts.

“How? Why?” Yost asked. “I don’t know.”

There are a lot of different answers to this, and Duffy doesn’t mind helping some.

Forgive him, though, if he doesn’t want to delve too deep.

In part, that’s because he doesn’t want to venture anywhere near the lurking spiral of overthinking things, which he is prone to do.

And in part it’s because he’s not at all ready to take one iota of this for granted, especially not in a season that began with what he considered a humbling assignment to Class AAA Omaha.

“I think being sent down this year was probably the most important event in my career here,” he said. “It definitely showed me that this isn’t forever.”

But his ascension to the cusp of his potential also stems from a series of seemingly paradoxical realizations that Duffy, 25, has reconciled together.

His thinking might sound like a fusion of Yogi Berra, Zen and maybe even a hint of Bill Murray’s Carl in “Caddyshack,” invoking the Dalai Lama’s gift of “total … consciousness.”

Then again, maybe it’s not Duffy overthinking this.

Asked what he’s achieved by walking so much to clear his head, Duffy laughed and said, “It’s just walking.”

Yet there’s no doubt his reflection has led to a certain serenity.

That shows up in everything from how he navigates early trouble to shrugging off the lack of run support he’s been getting.

Contradictory as it might sound, for instance, his heightened sense of urgency somehow led him to a more placid mind-set.

“It’s funny how things fall into your lap when you stop worrying about them so much,” he said, “and just work for them.”

Then there’s this: Duffy acknowledges he was once volatile (though protests it was exaggerated) and even says he’s “still that guy.”

But he also says he’s more zeroed in now because … he’s being himself more.

He’s gotten to these intangible places with maturation and a little nudge from the brotherly James Shields.

“ ‘You’ve just got to be you. Whoever you are, just channel you,’ ” Duffy recalled him saying. “ ‘If you’re out there and you get frustrated, cool, but channel it for the better, don’t let it work against you.’ ”

With a smile, Duffy added, “I don’t really know how to explain it, but it makes sense.”

Shields perhaps expressed it in more tangible terms.

“He’s one of those guys who wears his emotions on his sleeves, and now he’s able to use that energy in his pitching in a positive way rather than a negative way,” he said. “He’s become a pitcher this year, not just a thrower. I think before he was just trying to hit corners and trying to nibble a little bit rather than attacking.

“Now he’s attacking and trusting his stuff and trusting his defense behind him.”

And vice versa.

Said third baseman Mike Moustakas, whose locker sits next to Duffy’s and also joined the organization in 2007: “It’s awesome to see him finally being himself.”

He considers Duffy “stress-free” on the mound.

This all shows up in ways ranging from Duffy’s enhanced strikeout-to-walk ratio (76-34 this season, 137-83 in his previous three partial seasons) to a visibly more poised posture and more methodical approach to hitters.

Here, Duffy prefers to stay vague as he starts to feel “wheels spinning in my head” over trying to express himself properly or saying too much.

Bottom line, though, is knows a lot more about how to “harness my stuff” and “when to throw, what and how to throw, what to who.”

Now, the rhythm of it all is becoming more routine.

Yost notes Duffy is “duplicating his mechanics,” making him more consistent in the strike zone and ultimately better able to manage his pitch count.

How? Why?

Only Duffy really knows inside, though there’s no sense in him poking around in there too much.

“When you just go out there and just try to be as good as you can and no more than that, if that makes sense, that’s when things start to fall in,” he said. “It’s what I’ve learned this year, anyway, and it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. I have a lot to learn and a long way to go.”

But now he’s the real deal now … in more ways than one.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow on Twitter.com/vgregorian

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