When Danny Duffy ended the seventh inning by striking out Jose Bautista to keep the Royals’ deficit against the Blue Jays at three, he was prepared to return for the eighth.
“I was in the tunnel expecting to go back out,” Duffy said.
He likely would have if the Royals finished the seventh without the lead. But things started happening and a messenger arrived in the form of Jarrod Dyson as Alex Gordon stepped to the plate with Mike Moustakas on second in a tied game.
“He said, ‘Watch this, Gordo’s about to get locked in right here,’ and sure enough…” Duffy said.
As Moustakas crossed the plate on Gordon’s double, Duffy’s day was over as the Royals would employ their eighth and ninth inning specialists, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, to close out the 6-3 victory on Saturday in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
But the job of Duffy in the seventh and Luke Hochevar in the sixth was every bit as meaningful to the outcome.
The middle relievers held the fort.
Hochevar stopped a Blue Jays’ rally in its tracks. Duffy took on the top of Toronto’s order and shut it down, striking out Bautista to end the seventh.
When the Royals posted five runs in the seventh, Duffy collected the victory. He preferred to pass it along.
“Hoch was unbelievable today,” Duffy said. “If it wasn’t for him, you’re looking at an entirely different ball game. He went out there and did his thing. … He should have gotten the win.”
Starter Yordano Ventura’s effort was solid but as the sixth inning progressed his pitch count climbed and effectiveness waned.
The Blue Jays had push across two runs, and the bases were loaded with one out when Hochevar entered.
It has been a tidy postseason for Hochevar, the longest tenured Royals pitcher who missed last year’s playoffs while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He appeared twice in the ALDS against the Astros, yielding on runs in 2 2/3 innings.
He contributed a scoreless ninth in the ALCS opening-game victory Friday, but this would be his most pressure-packed appearance. The Blue Jays had the bases loaded and one out, looking to break open the game and even the series.
“That team doesn’t miss mistakes,” Hochevar said. “In that situation there’s just no room for it. My thought process going in was to execute. You don’t have any wiggle room”
Kevin Pillar, who doubled and scored in the third inning, stepped in. Pillar took a strike and fouled off the second pitch. On the third, Hochevar delivered an 94 mph fastball that Pillar popped to second baseman Ben Zobrist.
Up stepped Ryan Goins, whose double drove in Pillar in the third. Hochevar pumped a strike past Goins, who grounded his second pitch to first baseman Eric Hosmer. The flip throw to Hochevar finished the inning and kept the Blue Jays’ margin at 3-0.
“That was huge,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “They’re a hit away from breaking that game open at that point, 5-0. If it’s 3-0 you still feel you’ve got a shot to mount an attack. A 5-0 score is a little more daunting.”
The Royals didn’t respond in the sixth as Blue Jays starter David Price was his most dominant, striking out the side. The call went to Duffy, who was assigned a bullpen role in the final two weeks of the season and in the postseason after starting 24 games.
Duffy coaxed a ground out from Ben Revere and a fly out to center from Josh Donaldson. That brought up Bautista, who hit two home runs against the Texas Rangers in their ALDS, including the Game 5 bomb and the animated bat flip heard around baseball.
“He’s a guy who’s hit me well in the past,” Duffy said. “My ball was running a lot today.”
The final pitch, on a full count, was a fastball that ran away from Bautista, finding the lower outside part of the strike zone. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz went into his strikeout call, and the Royals had kept the Blue Jays at bay once again.
Moments later, the Royals would begin the run that led to the victory.
“I never doubt our team,” Duffy said. “Never.”