On the verge of a peak moment, this Royals season of exhilarating promise sustained its first true tremor on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
The jolt needn’t change anything, but it also clarified what they’re up against down the stretch on a day they were seeking to climb 18 games over .500 for the first time and expand their lead to three games over Detroit in the American League Central race.
Then one pitch into the bottom of the first, a shiver surged through Royals players and fans over the flinching Danny Duffy.
He abruptly departed what would become a 6-2 loss for what was vaguely identified as shoulder stiffness.
It’s impossible to know with any certainty what that means before Duffy undergoes an MRI on Sunday in Kansas City.
As much as all want instant answers and might make assumptions, it’s worth recalling what proved to be unfounded hysteria over the elbow pain experienced earlier this season by Yordano Ventura … who missed all of one start.
So maybe this won’t be so bad.
“It was painful, but I have a good feeling about it,” Duffy said. “I don’t think this is going to end my season.”
Then again, Duffy’s words likely are based more on hope than knowledge, and maybe the sensation he compared to a “vise-grip” on his shoulder will clamp him down and out.
Since Duffy underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, a debilitating injury was “the first thing you think about,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
If so, it’s a shame on multiple levels, especially since Duffy had melded mind and body together and found his groove this season.
“He’s been one of our best pitchers, if not our best guy, all year,” Hosmer said.
So the Royals are a much better team with him than without him.
And without him their considerable offensive vulnerability would become more problematic.
The injury, whatever it proves to be, magnifies that issue.
For one thing, the last week or so has proved a resounding reminder of why the Royals are in this: pitching and defense.
For a while, they also had demonstrated a knack for timely hitting and cobbling out opportunities.
But this is the sloppy alter ego of the kind of offense that can’t count on power:
If you count the nine innings of the game against Cleveland that was suspended last Sunday to be played out on Sept. 22, the Royals have amassed 18 runs in their last eight games.
Somehow, though, they won four, lost three and trail 4-2 in that one game looming.
Remove one cog of that formula, Duffy, and dominoes are standing by to start tumbling.
If nothing else, his absence would diminish their already-emaciated margin for error.
Of course, the flip side of all this would be to reinvent the formula to, say, stoke more offense.
But it’s far-fetched to expect that after seeing the already power-challenged Royals find so many ways to squander opportunities.
Against Cleveland last weekend, they stranded 28 men in two days in two losses because hitters seemed to freelance instead of play to plan with men on.
Sixteen of those got stuck in a 3-2, 11-inning loss last Saturday that manager Ned Yost reflected on a day later.
“The way I’ve always learned and gotten better is through failure,” he said. “You fail, you make mistakes, you go back and analyze what you did to fail, and it always helps you get better as a player.
“So last night could have been a big night for us in terms of helping us understand our approach a little more. And only time will tell.”
Since then, though, time has suggested the Royals didn’t prosper at all by that.
But they’ve been able to keep getting away with it because of pitching. They swept Texas (4-3, 2-1 and 4-1) and beat New York 1-0 on Friday.
No wonder creating the lineup every day has become part Rubik’s cube, part roulette wheel for Yost.
On Saturday, he installed Josh Willingham at designated hitter and Carlos Peguero in right field in hopes of getting something sparked.
Willingham did double and score a run in what often appeared an unfocused game by the Royals, who made a few mental mistakes.
Include batting strategy or approach among those lapses:
Trailing 3-1, they couldn’t get Hosmer home after a one-out double (Willingham flyout, Peguero strikeout).
Trailing 4-1, they couldn’t get Alcides Escobar home from third with one out (Lorenzo Cain strikeout, Omar Infante flyout).
Meanwhile, Yost is committed to staying upbeat, and he certainly won’t alienate players by calling them out now.
“Tomorrow could be a whole different day,” he said.
For that matter, he has a point when he scoffs at a question about his concerns about runs over the last week or so.
“In the last seven, eight days, we’ve won some ballgames,” he said. “So that’s all I’m concerned with: score enough runs to win some ballgames.”
But part of being able to think that way has been pitching that nearly could be taken for granted.
That never really could be assumed, of course, and now it really can’t be assured a day after closer Greg Holland also had been held out because of shoulder stiffness.
This is all daunting stuff for Royals followers.
But it also needn’t be seen as impending doom, either.
The Royals by and large have enjoyed remarkable health this season, so if Duffy’s injury seems a curse, it needs also to be seen in that context.
Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the Royals were finishing a 10-game road trip on which they produced 68 runs.
They actually can score, even if they refuse to at times.
For all this, though, Duffy’s presence or lack thereof will affect the equation because he’s been a key part of the pitching that has trumped some blemishes.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Hosmer said, “it’s not serious.”