In the moments after his first start in four weeks, Danny Duffy’s voice remained flat. His elbow felt good, he said. His performance was encouraging. His stuff was sharp.
And yet it was hard to muster enthusiasm after this, a 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Sunday at Progressive Field. So, as Duffy stood in the middle of the Royals’ clubhouse, he spoke in plain terms, never raising his voice an octave.
“I’ve been looking forward to pitching for a long time,” he said. “It was nice to get back out there. I felt at home.”
On the disabled list since late August because of a forearm strain, Duffy returned to the mound Sunday, permitting two runs and one hit in five innings. On a pitch count of 65 pitches, he resembled the front-line lefty expected to anchor the rotation. On the same field as Indians ace Corey Kluber, it didn’t really matter.
Kluber, a Cy Young favorite in the midst of perhaps his finest season, offered seven shutout innings and improved to 17-4, lowering his league-leading ERA to 2.35.
“Pretty nasty,” Royals center fielder Paulo Orlando said.
The result was a third loss in four days at Progressive Field. The reality check was evident.
On a Sunday afternoon in downtown Cleveland, the Royals watched their division rival raise an American League Central championship flag before the game and spray champagne after, securing a victory in the four-game series. As its late-season fade continued, Kansas City fell to 73-76, three games under .500 for the first time since June 17, wounded and dragging as a day off in Toronto loomed on Monday.
The Royals took the field Sunday with catcher Salvador Perez, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and third baseman Mike Moustakas out of the lineup. All three are playing through pain. With Kluber on the mound, and the Indians reveling in a division title clinched late Saturday night, the outcome was predictable.
“He’s a tough draw, man,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He pounds down and away, down and away, heavy sinker, and a two-seamer. Just a premier guy.”
Kluber took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and extended his scoreless innings streak to 22. He surpassed 250 strikeouts for the season, and in his second start against the Royals, he improved to 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA.
The Royals’ offense left the bases loaded in the seventh — when Kluber exploded Alex Gordon’s bat with a curveball — and was limited to two runs in the eighth on a two-out single by designated hitter Brandon Moss.
As the day began, Yost sought to offer needed rest to Perez, Cain and Moustakas entering Monday’s off day. Perez has missed three straight games while battling an intercostal strain in his right side. Cain (quad) and Moustakas (knee) have been hounded by nagging issues.
By the end, the Royals sat five games behind the Minnesota Twins in the race for the second American League wild-card spot. They have just 13 games remaining. The chances of a third playoff appearance in four years are effectively dead.
The sentiment went mostly unremarked upon Sunday. A quiet clubhouse understood the math. Yet the club has other, more modest, goals to play for as Moustakas, Cain and Eric Hosmer play what could be their final weeks as Royals. The Royals must win at least eight of their final 13 to finish at .500 or better for a fifth straight season. The franchise has not accomplished that feat since a run of six straight years during 1975-80.
Yes, 13 games left. For now, that could mean two more starts for Duffy, who displayed little rust Sunday while pitching in a familiar park. It was here on May 28, 16 weeks ago, that he yielded six runs in four innings and strained an oblique muscle while awkwardly covering first base. In the months since, his season has not been the same. Not quite, anyway.
He spent a month on the disabled list, returned to post a 3.20 ERA in July, and then felt his left arm bark in August. An MRI revealed a low-grade pronator strain. After the trip home for the exam, he received a DUI citation on Aug. 27 in Overland Park.
Three weeks later, Duffy stepped back on the mound at Progressive Field, his first start in 26 days. His presence represented relief for a fatigued starting rotation, but there were limits, too, including a pitch count.
Duffy surrendered just one hit in five innings. He struck out eight while issuing zero walks. His only mistake came in the fourth, on a 2-1 change-up that Edwin Encarnacion walloped over the wall in left.
“He was probably sitting on that, too,” Duffy said. “But if I locate it better, it’s probably a ground ball. But it was right where his bread box is.”
The blast came moments after Austin Jackson reached on a throwing error by second baseman Whit Merrifield. The Indians had a 2-0 lead. It would turn into 3-0 in the seventh. With Kluber on the mound, and the Royals rolling out a junior-varsity lineup, a loss seemed likely.
Still, there were opportunities. Moustakas pinch hit with two outs in the eighth and struck out against Indians closer Cody Allen with the tying run in scoring position. The Royals put two more runners on in the ninth before Allen struck out Drew Butera and Merrifield to end the game.
“We had chances late,” Yost said. “Just couldn’t capitalize on them.”