Not even 24 hours before Danny Duffy was scheduled to make a rehab start at Class Triple-A Omaha, Jakob Junis took the mound on Friday evening at Kauffman Stadium unsure what shape his future in a Royals uniform would take.
He rejoined the Royals rotation on June 6, recalled from Omaha to fill the gaps in Kansas City’s ailing staff. He made three starts over 12 days, going 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA over 16 innings. In his last turn against the Los Angeles Angels, Junis allowed eight hits and five runs and only made it through 5 1/3 innings.
Even without a date for Duffy’s return, Junis had to know his future in the big leagues was on the line as he toed the rubber in front of a crowd of 38,848 and readied to face the Toronto Blue Jays. Duffy is recovering from an oblique strain and could be back sooner than expected, making Junis or Matt Strahm the potential odd man out of the rotation.
Besides a fourth-inning wrinkle — Junis hit former Royal Kendrys Morales, who scored on a double, and eventually allowed a second run to score on a wild pitch — Junis made a case for himself.
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He allowed six hits in 6 1/3 innings, kept the ball in the yard — after having allowed six homers across his previous three starts — and struck out four.
“I thought Jake threw the ball well,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. “The fourth inning there, kind of got himself into a little bit of trouble. … (But) 6 1/3 strong innings kept us in the ball game, gave us a chance to win the ball game.”
Part of it was a thing of repetition, of finally arriving at some kind of comfort level in spite of his shuttling between starts for the Stormchasers and the Royals all season.
And another part of it was his ability to get tough with runners in scoring position. The Jays were 0 for 5 in such situations on Friday night, and, overall, opponents are hitting .226 (7 for 31) with runners in scoring position against Junis.
It would have been a hard-luck loss for Junis, who had retired seven straight before Dwight Smith Jr.’s two-out single in the sixth. Junis allowed a leadoff walk in the seventh, but the runner never came around to score after Peter Moylan held the game at 2-0 when he relieved Junis with one out.
The Royals scratched across a run in the bottom of the seventh, but Joakim Soria put a damper on a potential rally when he allowed the Blue Jays to add two runs in the ninth inning for a 4-1 lead.
In the end, the Royals mounted an unlikely four-run comeback to take Junis off the hook. He didn’t get to see Whit Merrifield drill a 3-1 fastball into the left field wall because the broadcast in the clubhouse had cut out. But as he walked out of the trainer’s room, he heard the crowd roar as Merrifield put a bow on a 5-4 walk-off win.
“Then Whit came up, we were confident. We all knew,” Junis said. “We were like, ‘He’s gonna hit a double, no, he’s gonna hit a single, he’s might hit a home run.’ But just glad he got a hit and we got the win.”