Before he took the mound on Thursday, part of the Royals’ 11-7 loss to Texas, Danny Duffy received a word of advice from George Brett. The message concerned efficiency, a defect in Duffy’s game. Brett told Duffy to concentrate on completing each of his two innings of work in 15 pitches or less.
“It’s a lot easier said than done,” Duffy said. “Especially this early.”
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Duffy needed 37 to get through his two frames. He escaped a jam in his first inning by only allowing two runs, including a crushed solo homer by Prince Fielder. Duffy experimented with a slider, a newer addition to his arsenal. He struck out four and walked one. In all, he felt pleased with his first foray into the team’s fifth-starter competition.
The performance of Duffy was the most compelling component of an otherwise sloppy Cactus League opener, a game marked by “rustiness,” in the eyes of manager Ned Yost. The Royals committed four errors. Starter Bruce Chen gave up two runs in two innings. Reliever Cory Wade suffered through a five-run seventh. Danny Valencia and Justin Maxwell each homered.
“We got through it,” Yost said. “I thought we had some good at-bats.”
Earlier in the morning, Yordano Ventura, Duffy’s chief competition, threw live batting practice on one of the team’s back fields. Their duel — with Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, Brad Penny and Chris Dwyer all in the mix — figures to be this spring’s chief storyline. Ventura focused on correcting a few mechanical flaws that caused him to spray pitches outside the strike zone during an intrasquad game earlier this week.
Duffy, the 25-year-old lefty, possesses a similar problem. Despite his on-wound weaponry, he often struggles to finish at-bats. He replaced Chen on the mound in the third inning, and received an early opportunity for a challenge. After a quick strikeout of Elvis Andrus, up came Fielder.
Here in camp, Duffy is trying two countervailing forces: The need to produce for the competition, and the desire to “work on things,” he said. He framed his encounter with Fielder as an experiment gone awry. Up 1-0, he tried to bust Fielder on the hands with a two-seam sinker. Except the ball never broke.
“It was the right mind-set,” Duffy said. “But I didn’t execute.”
Fielder parked the pitch inside the Rangers’ bullpen. From there, Duffy wobbled. He issued a four-pitch walk. Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia laced a run-scoring double to center. Duffy escaped without allowing another run, though he uncorked a pair of wild pitches and gave up a single in the process.
His command was “a little iffy,” Yost said.
For his second inning of work, Duffy turned to a new toy. The coaching staff suggested a slider, a modification of his seldom-used cutter, to help with his command. Duffy struggles throwing strikes with his curveball, and appeared eager once more to experiment. From the dugout, pitching coach Dave Eiland was “pleasantly surprised” to see the pitch.
“I told him not to take it out into the games until he felt comfortable enough to do it,” Eiland said with a grin. “He got comfortable before I thought he would. That’s fine. That’s fine. He threw some good ones today.”
Facing mostly Texas backups, Duffy breezed through the fourth. He slipped a slider past outfielder Leonys Martin for one strikeout, then pumped a 91-mph fastball past outfielder Bryan Pedersen. After a groundout, Duffy was free to hit the showers.
Nothing definitive occurred on Thursday. Duffy resembled himself: Talented but erratic, still building toward the pitcher he hopes to become.
“I’m going for the fifth spot, so I definitely have to produce,” Duffy said. “But the first time out in a game situation, I felt great. And I felt like I was in control on everything I threw.”