Danny Duffy had just run six miles in 97-degree heat and his mind could not focus. His eyes tracked a solitary figure exiting the room on Saturday at Kauffman Stadium. The return of Duffy to the Kansas City starting rotation coincided with the departure to the minors of Yohan Pino, who had struggled in an emergency outing the night before.
“I don’t want to talk too loud when he’s walking out,” Duffy on Saturday told a small group of reporters asking about his impending start on Wednesday at Safeco Field against the Mariners. “Can I say goodbye to him real quick? Do you guys mind?”
Duffy, 2-3, 5.87 ERA, strode over and embraced Pino. Then he returned to his locker to finish his interview. He apologized to the reporters, but explained he could not miss an opportunity to support a teammate. He views himself as lucky to share the stage of major-league baseball, and stresses the necessity of supporting his brethren.
When Duffy takes the mound on Wednesday night against the Seattle Mariners, 39 days will have passed since his last outing. In the interim, he has undergone a cortisone shot to quell inflammation in his left shoulder, pitched in two minor-league games to rebuild his arm strength and leaned upon his faith at a time when his arm did not allow him to contribute to his club.
Duffy keeps a small notebook and inside he transcribes the passages from the Bible that speak to him. He taped a verse from the Book of Jeremiah and another from the Book of Matthew inside his locker. He studies St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He can recite the message of his favorite passage, from Colossians 3:23, when Paul urges the reader to throw his hearts into his work in the name of the Lord.
“I know what I’ve got inside of me,” Duffy said last month, before he went on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis. “I’m starting to get more comfortable talking about it. I’m leaning on it heavy right now. I feel I’m really comfortable, just really comfortable. I just want to use the gift that He gave me.”
He reconnected with his religion near the end of last season, when he injured his left shoulder, suffered a stress reaction in his ribcage and spectated for most of October. He says his faith sustains him.
“I try to look for strength anywhere I can,” Duffy said. “And that’s the ultimate. And that’s where I go. Once it all starts to click there, I think the sky’s going to be the limit.”
The Royals hope that on Wednesday Duffy can reclaim the form he exhibited so often last season. The organization tabbed him as their No. 2 starter for 2015. Duffy responded with a passable April and a three-start swoon in May.
Across three games, Duffy allowed 14 runs in 9 2/3 innings. Pitching coach Dave Eiland fretted about Duffy’s misguided approach, which was too reliant on fastballs, and manager Ned Yost hinted Duffy may be in danger of losing his spot in the rotation if his troubles continued.
The disabled list delayed any day of reckoning. In the intervening weeks, the calculus of the rotation has changed. Both Jason Vargas (flexor strain) and Yordano Ventura (ulnar nerve irritation) are on the disabled list.
Duffy has modified his delivery since his last outing. Borrowing aspects from reliever Wade Davis, he is now bringing his hands above his head before each offering. Eiland indicated Duffy looked more under control in his rehabilitation outings, but that the mechanical tweaks operate mostly like a placebo.
“He can go over his head, he can go under his arms, he can go between his legs, it doesn’t matter,” Eiland said. “He’s got to keep his front hip and his front shoulder on line.”
He added, “It’s all about going out there and staying under control, emotionally and physically. If he does that, he’s going to be fine.”
When Duffy struggled in May, the results re-opened a discussion about the battle between his head and his arm. Duffy wishes this line of questioning would cease, but he understands only his arm can silence criticism of his head.
His past created a context. Duffy walked away from baseball in 2010. He returned after a few months away, but he believes this incident still follows him. He views it as the source of the chatter taking place among fans and the media about his mental stability and emotional maturity.
“The easiest thing for people to do is talk about my mental state, because of what I did when I was 20 years old,” Duffy said in May. “And six years later, I don’t think I’ve shown a single sign of being erratic with my mind since. But that’s always going to stay with me. And that’s fine. I couldn’t be more comfortable with my mentality right now.”
Duffy still occasionally sports cartoonish facial hair, adores the sitcom “Workaholics,” and owns an exorbitant amount of clothing featuring the visage of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. But he got married last September. He turned 26 in December. He is no longer the 22-year-old kid who debuted with the Royals in 2011.
Last September proved transformative for him. The injuries to his shoulder and ribcage rendered him a spectator for much of the fall, and reminded him how finite time in the big leagues can be. Duffy sat back and considered his blessings. He was endowed with a left arm capable of throwing a baseball 95 mph. The Royals granted him time to solve the issues that caused him to quit in 2010. The club also financed his recovery after Tommy John surgery in 2012.
Duffy had always been conscientious toward his teammates, but the skill went into overdrive last fall. He did not chirp about his meager contributions to the World Series. He did not complain when the club asked him to conceal his ribcage injury throughout the playoffs. He resolved to avoid a repeat of the scenario in 2015.
Duffy considers himself lucky to be in the majors. He views his arm as a gift. He intends to use it to contribute to the Kansas City cause on Wednesday and beyond, and he will continue to do likewise inside the clubhouse.
“It’s up to me to prepare enough to get to the point where I can use it to the best of my ability,” Duffy said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just about the dude you are. It’s about the dude you are.”