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Danny Duffy flirts with perfection as Royals shut out Orioles 1-0

5/18/2014

By Andy Mccullough

McClatchy-Tribune

At 8:12 p.m. on Saturday, exactly two hours after the finest start of Danny Duffy's big-league career commenced, Royals manager Ned Yost left his dugout for the first time. In a 1-0 victory over Baltimore, Duffy kept his opponents spell-bound, his audience energized and his manager enraptured.

"He was some kind of special tonight," Yost said after Duffy strung together a perfect-game bid that lasted 20 batters, long enough to remind the 24,064 in attendance of his tantalizing talent.

His chance at a franchise-first had ended the inning before. But his achievement was still worth celebrating. Duffy handed the baseball to his manager after giving up an eighth-inning single, just his second hit allowed. 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 night by grounding a single up the middle with two outs in the seventh. Duffy walked none, and in the process, appeared to cement his place in the team's starting rotation.

"He was throwing strike after strike," Billy Butler said. "That's Danny Duffy's ceiling right there. He's capable of doing that every time he goes out."

Duffy earned the plaudits, but his team provided some help. Butler roped an RBI single for a first-inning lead. A diving seventh-inning catch by Alex Gordon electrified the park. Greg Holland loaded the bases in the ninth, but struck out Nelson Cruz to preserve the victory.

Afterward, Duffy deflected praise onto his teammates. Asked what was working best for him, he replied, "My defense." But his performance rescued the offense after yet another dreary outing. The Royals have now scored only two runs during the first three games of this series.

"We've hit as bad as we possibly could have during the season," Butler said. "And it's only up from here. I can guarantee you that."

On Saturday, they still relied upon Duffy. His methodology was simple. Of his 97 pitches, 77 were fastballs. He lacked confidence in his offspeed choices, but at least kept them down in the zone, pitching coach Dave Eiland explained. His delivery was compact and consistent. He also displayed an emotional maturity, learning from his mistakes rather than compounding them.

"He doesn't let one bad pitch turn into two, or two turn into three," Eiland said. "He's able to turn the page."

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."

For one night, at least, Duffy rendered those concerns moot. He has allowed only two runs in his 17 innings as a starter. But his pace was brisk on Saturday in a way that is uncommon for him. His inability to finish at-bats can be chronic. He combated that issue by locating his fastball at the knees and on the corners.

Duffy insisted he did not notice the lack of base runners until the final stages of the chase. But his teammates were aware. The dugout chatter ignored the room's elephant. The fielders understood the stakes.

"Once you get to the fifth inning," Gordon said, "you start thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to put my body on the line to try to preserve this for Duffy, or whoever's pitching. I guarantee all eight position players were thinking the same thing.' "

The responsibility fell to Gordon. The fourth pitch of the seventh was a waist-high, 94-mph fastball to outfielder Nick Markakis. He stroked a liner toward the left-field line. Duffy considered the matter academic.

"I was like 'Gordo's got a bead on that,' " he said. "No worries. I don't even have to look."

Gordon launched himself into dirt near the warning track. He skidded a few feet as the crowd exploded. His play caused a chain reaction around the stadium. In the bullpen, the pitchers "went stir-crazy," as if "we were out there pitching with him," Holland said.

"When Gordy made that play, I said, 'Oh, man we might see something special here tonight,' " Yost said.

The anticipation lasted only two batters. 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 history was over. But for Duffy, perhaps Saturday was just a start.

"That was absolutely unbelievable," Butler said. "That gave you a glimpse of what he could be every time."