KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At 8:12 p.m. on Saturday, exactly two hours after the finest start of Danny Duffy's big-league career began, Royals manager Ned Yost left his dugout for the first time. In a 1-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, Duffy kept his opponents spellbound and his audience enraptured.
His bid for perfection had crumbled an inning before. But his achievement was still worth celebrating. Duffy handed the baseball to his manager. He slapped a hand across the chests of the five teammates surrounding him. Then a wave of adulation washed over him from the stands at Kauffman Stadium and from inside his own dugout.
Duffy (2-3, 1.42 ERA) pitched into the eighth inning for the first time in his professional career on Saturday. He finished seven batters shy of the fifth no-hitter in franchise history. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones wrecked Duffy's bid for a perfect game by grounding a single up the middle with two outs in the seventh. Duffy allowed two hits in all, but appeared to cemented his place in the team's starting rotation.
His route to the mound on Saturday was far from a straight line. Yordano Ventura bested Duffy in a preseason competition for the final spot in the rotation. Duffy flunked a bullpen audition and received a plane ticket to Class AAA Omaha. With the big-league club desperate for arms, he spent April in the bullpen. Now he has a chance to fulfill the organization's promise in him.
One day in spring training, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo pondered the mystery of Duffy. His skill is obvious. Yet he had been unable to consistently harness it.
"He's got the stuff of a No. 1," Picollo said. "Now does he have the makeup and the mental fortitude do be a No. 1? Will he allow himself mentally to be a No. 1? That's the question."
An injury granted Duffy the opportunity to prove himself. A bulging disk has sidelined Bruce Chen for the immediate future. He is at least a week, and perhaps longer, from beginning a rehabilitation assignment. Thus an opportunity exists for Duffy to "make his case" for the rotation, manager Ned Yost explained.
"The results have definitely been good," Yost said. "He's been making good adjustments."
Yost pointed to Duffy's last start. In Seattle he tossed six consecutive balls to begin the outing. Then he recovered, and gave up only one run in six innings.
"That's what we look for," Yost said. "He's got tremendous stuff. We just look for him to command it, and keep us in the ballgame."
The most impressive aspect of Duffy's last performance was his efficiency. He required only 88 pitches to bring his team into the seventh. Despite the lengthy layoff, he didn't skip a beat on Saturday. And he worked from ahead from the beginning.
In the first inning, the Royals matched their offensive output of the previous two games combined. The task was not tall: They had scored only one run in consecutive defeats. A two-out single from Butler scored Nori Aoki, who had notched an infield single and then stole second base.
Duffy possesses a propensity for long counts and skittish command. Yet he appeared compact and consistent on Saturday. His fastball sat comfortable in the lower 90s, a notch below his high-octane peak. He recorded only one strikeout through the first six frames, fooling backup catcher Caleb Joseph with a third-inning curveball.
At times, Duffy appeared on the precipice of failing into old habits. To open the fifth, he tossed three straight balls to Orioles slugger Chris Davis. He reset, fired a pair of fastballs over the middle and watched Davis fly out to left.
As the innings went on, zeros dotted the scoreboard high above center field. The tension heightened. When Mike Moustakas snagged a line-drive to end the sixth, the crowd roared in appreciation. When Alex Gordon sprawled across the warning track down the left-field line to open the seventh, the explosion was enormous.
The tension ratcheted up inside the park. With one swing, Jones deflated the crowd. Duffy fired a 93-mph fastball on the inner half. Jones chopped it up the gut, past Alcides Escobar and into the outfield.
The bid for immortality was over. But for Duffy, perhaps Saturday was just a start.
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