Sam Mellinger

A determined Danny Duffy rises to the challenge as reliever for the Royals

Royals left-hander Danny Duffy got the win in Thursday’s game after escaping trouble in the 10th.
Royals left-hander Danny Duffy got the win in Thursday’s game after escaping trouble in the 10th. The Kansas City Star

Danny Duffy throws a slow curve, the kind of pitch that only works with confidence and timing and guts. The cleanup hitter is up. A runner is on base. It is the bottom of the 10th inning, and the pitcher the Royals essentially decided they can’t trust is throwing a feel pitch with the game on the line.

This Royals season has already taken so many twists and turned around so many blind corners, so what’s one more?

Duffy’s idea is perfect. His execution flawless.

Howie Kendrick must be expecting a fastball, because he’s way out in front and basically done with his swing by the time Duffy’s pitch crosses the plate. Strike three. Inning over. Duffy points to the sky, and in this moment the American League Division Series takes a dramatic shift toward the Royals’ side.

The Royals go on to win the series’ opening game 3-2 in 11 innings. Mike Moustakas, demoted in May and struggling for most of the season, hit the winning home run over the right field fence in his second playoff game. His home run goes right next to Salvador Perez’s winner in the Wild Card Game and everything George Brett did in the franchise’s all-time moments.

Then, hours after getting off a cross-country flight from witnessing the birth of his son, Greg Holland locked down the final three outs. There is drama everywhere, one more classic filled with tense moments and highlights that will play for years back in Kansas City. The Royals, apparently, are shoving 29 years of pent-up theater into one postseason.

“I’ve always heard anything can happen in October,” Duffy says. “I’m seeing that to be very true.”

For however long the Royals last in these playoffs, the biggest development going forward is that Duffy apparently has his mojo back. This was always going to be a tough game for the Royals to win, just two days and a red-eye flight after winning what pretty much everyone called the wildest game they’d ever seen.

Baseball momentum is overrated and overstated, but the Royals have to feel an incredible confidence not just by winning this game but by winning it like this. If Duffy can be counted on, it changes the way the Royals can play the rest of this series, giving them an option they weren’t sure they had just a few hours earlier.

That Duffy’s moment came a few innings after Kelvin Herrera left the game with some sort of forearm injury makes it even more crucial. Herrera will have an MRI on Friday, and the Royals are outwardly calm about it, but you never know.

The Royals have always been operating without is a safety net, but before they even played game one here they were lessened by the absence of Duffy in the rotation. Manager Ned Yost talked about liking Jason Vargas’ experience, and his success on the road, but the fact that Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are both scheduled to start in this series basically translated to a lack of trust in Duffy.

Duffy was the Royals’ best starting pitcher for most of the season, and only four American League pitchers with at least 20 starts have an ERA better than Duffy’s 2.53. But something changed when he suffered what the club called shoulder inflammation in early September.

The guy who came back from a two-week absence was not the one who left. His numbers were good in his first start — six shutout innings — but he abandoned the windup and seemed to lack confidence in his pitches. He was terrible in his next start, when he didn’t even try the windup, and now he’s the team’s long reliever. Bruce Chen was the Royals’ long reliever for much of the season, and the team cut him.

On Thursday in a playoff game, the Royals used five relief pitchers — including Tim Collins, who spent half the season in Omaha after a demotion in June — before turning to Duffy. They used Duffy when they ran out of alternatives, basically.

But whatever reservations the Royals had have to be gone now, either by necessity from Herrera’s injury or conviction with what Duffy showed in extra innings of his first playoff game. He walked the first batter he saw (out of the windup, by the way) but then got outs on a grounder by Mike Trout, pop-up by Albert Pujols, and the strikeout of Kendrick. He threw just 12 pitches, nine of them strikes, in retiring the heart of the best lineup in the American League.

Duffy is just 25 years old, and in his first professional season with more than 150 innings, but already he’s been through so much. He was a third-round pick in 2007, the first official draft class after Dayton Moore’s hire as general manager, and at the forefront of an organizational restocking of power arms.

He quit baseball in 2010, just three years after being drafted. He was 21 years old, had known nothing but success in the minor leagues, but didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Even at the time, Royals officials thought that Duffy would come back, eventually, but they wanted him to take his time. And they knew that no matter what else, he would have to be watched and treated and encouraged a little differently than other guys.

Even before what they saw on Thursday, the Royals remained invested and positive about Duffy’s talent. But this was still a major shift. Even facing a predominately right-handed lineup like Anaheim’s, Duffy is a crucial part of the Royals’ best version of themselves. They are a team built on pitching and defense, and going through a playoff series without full faith in one of their best pitchers is no way to advance.

It doesn’t matter why that changed. It doesn’t matter that Yost was essentially forced to use Duffy with the game on the line. What matters is that Duffy had it, at least on this night, pitching like a star again.

Watching in person, you could see how important this was. Between batters and sometimes even pitches, Moustakas walked toward the mound, nodding his head and screaming encouragement at his teammate. Duffy and Moustakas came into professional baseball together in the same draft class, two California kids finding their way. Duffy always looked up to Moustakas. There is no telling how much his friend’s energy helped in that situation, but it had to feel good.

There is no telling how much Duffy’s big night will help the Royals going forward, but for now, it feels great.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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