Vahe Gregorian

In his return, it’s possible to see Danny Duffy’s potential

It was only meant to be a one-game stand for Danny Duffy, but there was no minimizing or rationalizing the meaning of the moment.

“We expect Daniel Duffy to be an important part of our team,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Wednesday afternoon. “He’s an important part of our team tonight: We’re in a pennant race, and he’s on the mound.”

If not a pennant race,

per se

, the Royals began the day 57-53 and 5 games out of the newfangled second wild-card spot. So there’s no need to quibble for a franchise that hasn’t mustered a postseason berth since 1985.

And with the Royals needing a replacement for Wade Davis, on bereavement leave after the death of his stepbrother, Duffy had done plenty at Class AAA Omaha to merit a return to the big leagues — where he’d made 26 starts before suffering a season-ending elbow injury last year.

With Omaha, he’d allowed one run or fewer in five of his last six outings with what Moore called “electric stuff” and by “turning the ball loose with a lot of conviction.”

Or as catcher Brett Hayes, up from Omaha himself, put it: “He’s at a point where he’s pretty much the Danny Duffy that everybody knows. There’s a reason that he’s back here. It’s not just to see if he can do it. He’s definitely proved that he’s got it back.”

And Duffy on Wednesday flashed a reminder of that potential, with seven strikeouts, despite a precarious opening sequence that featured surrendering a triple to the first batter he faced and ushering him home with a wild pitch.

All told in 32/3 innings, Duffy gave up two runs, six hits and two walks on 93 pitches — 54 of them strikes.

“That’s just not acceptable as a starting pitcher,” Duffy said afterward, adding, “I didn’t do my job tonight.”

But it was enough to keep the Royals in the game against Minnesota, whom they beat 5-2, and enough to see what Moore called the “reset” for Duffy, whose previous major-league profile featured a 5.28 ERA but a marked improvement in 2012 with a 3.90 ERA in six starts before he was injured.

So there’s no sure way to know where he goes from here — figuratively and literally, considering manager Ned Yost declined to address that after the game.

But the fact that Duffy’s velocity per the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard was consistently in the mid-90s and hit 99 on his fifth pitch certainly suggests his arm has mended well.

And with that, there’s ample reason to believe he has a high ceiling yet before him and that Wednesday was a milestone both to reach and get through.

So much so that Yost and Hayes expressed concern before the game that the excitable Duffy might have to work to contain his adrenaline, which Yost said he still had been learning to “harness” even before he got hurt.

He wants so badly to perform well, Hayes said, “Sometimes he gets in his own way. It’s our job as teammates to kind of keep him under control.”

That’s why Yost liked having Hayes filling in for the injured Salvador Perez and starting with Duffy, for whom he caught three of the last five starts in Omaha.

Still, Duffy said he couldn’t feel his legs in the first inning, and Yost suggested he was “a little overhyped at times” and noted he battled for command.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said: “Their young kid was winging it pretty good. He has a great arm. The ball was flying all over the place, and it kind of made us uncomfortable.”

But who could blame Duffy for being unsettled under the circumstances: His first major-league appearance since undergoing Tommy John surgery and grinding through the grueling physical and psychological rehabilitation that comes with it.

As commonplace as the procedure has become and as profoundly as it has advanced since, though, there’s an element of it that can’t just be precisely rewired.

“Having that little doubt of fear whether you’ll be able to return to the major leagues,” Moore said. “It’s not like Daniel Duffy has had a long major-league history. It’s going to be a small celebration just getting him out here, watching him compete, and I’m confident he’ll give us a good chance to win.”

And so Duffy did, important in itself but perhaps also in other context:

Stunningly, Duffy, a 2007 third-round draft pick, is the only pitcher plucked by the current regime to start a game for the Royals, whose bullpen and lineup largely are built on homegrown prospects.

Call it a quirk, call it the fallout of numerous injuries, or call it poor decisions.

But that void must be filled if the Royals are to sustain any momentum from what is shaping up as their best season in at least a decade.

“We’ve got to do better as an organization with developing our own pitchers,” Moore acknowledged, adding, “A lot of it is injury (the Royals had five pitchers, four homegrown, go through Tommy John surgery in 2011 and 2012) with guys coming up through the minor leagues. Hopefully you can keep them healthy. And sometimes they don’t pan out for whatever reason.

“Paul Snyder, a mentor of mine (with Moore at the Atlanta Braves) always told me you need 20 average or better pitching prospects just to get two or three to the major leagues. Just the attrition rate is so great.”

Others, at last, are creeping closer, including the much-ballyhooed Yordano Ventura, who could be here as soon as September, and Kyle Zimmer, the Royals’ 2012 top draft pick.

But for now, all of that future necessity is represented by Duffy, who at the least is likely to be summoned back for what looms as an even more crucial moment — a doubleheader Aug. 16 at first-place Detroit.

If the Royals remain in the race then, that will be the most significant start of his life and enabled in part by his imperfect but encouraging performance Wednesday.

“I’m not at all happy or pleased with my efficiency,” he said. “But the team won, and that’s all that matters at this point. I was part of a win, and next time I’ll be better.”

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