Danny Duffy is, in many ways, a microcosm of both the last four seasons of Kansas City Royals baseball and the 2016 Royals season in particular. Seemingly a bust as a starter, Duffy began the year in the bullpen, where he lurked in each of the previous two postseasons. Duffy the Reliever is nothing short of elite, as you might think a lefty with an upper 90s fastball and a starter's repertoire would be. But a good starter is more valuable than all but the upper echelon of elite bullpen arms. Duffy had failed as a starter.
Except he didn't. Duffy's always shown talent as a starter--most recently, Duffy's 2014 campaign that saw him twirl 25 starts with a 2.53 ERA, even though his peripheral numbers suggested that was awfully lucky. In general, Duffy never quite put it together for a full season, bringing his full arsenal to bear. Last year's thoroughly mediocre campaign was evidence that Duffy didn't quite get it.
This year, Duffy was pressed into service unexpectedly, as opening day rotation members Kris Medlen (remember him?) and Chris Young both fell to injuries. Duffy excelled, and excelled more wildly than anyone could have ever predicted. From May 15, his first start, to August 21, Duffy tossed 120.2 innings, striking out 126 and only walking 24 with an ERA that started with a two. It was a tour de force that launched him into Cy Young considerations.
In his last six starts, though, Duffy has looked like old Duffy. In 34 innings, Duffy was hammered for an ERA starting with a six, his walk rate jumping and his strikeout rate sagging. Tonight was Duffy's 2016 in fast forward: Duffy threw five scoreless innings against an admittedly hapless Minnesota Twins squad, but he was tagged for a quartet of runs in the sixth and seventh innings to rend what was a fantastic start into something far more pedestrian. Indeed, Duffy's final ERA for the season ended at 3.51, his strikeout rate per nine innings at 9.42. Those are numbers that you would be proud to pin to your refrigerator, but perhaps not proud enough of to submit as an idea for a TED talk. That that is also the 2016 Royals season in a nutshell.
Tonight was a blur. At this point in the dance, we are intimately in tune with our partner. With the slightest movement, we move with them. We move in tandem--Duffy's fastball and slider scorching batters as we watch with awe, our eyes rolling like boulders as Eric Hosmer waves his bat through the air, desperately trying to cling to a slider that breaks away.
And yet, any deep relationship yields an infinity of tiny surprises, like Paulo Orlando knocking four base hits or Hunter Dozier of all players inexplicably pinch-hitting for Kendrys Morales in a random spot in the middle of the game.
Entering the ninth inning, the score was knotted up at fours. The Royals had scored in a pair of two run innings--the second inning, in which eight Royals walked to the plate, Alcides Escobar and Drew Butera knocking in RBI singles, and a comeback seventh inning in response to the Twins, a Jarrod Dyson triple and Whit Merrifield single.
Kelvin Herrera sauntered to the mound in the top of the ninth inning to protect the lead. After inducing a lineout from Logan Schafer, Byron Buxton, who had gashed Duffy earlier for a pair of runs, doubled to left field on a hanging slider. Jorge Polanco singled, sending Buxton scampering to third.
At this point, we have to think: why are we watching? There is only downside available to this Royals team at this point in the season. If a key player gets injured, that affects next year. The Royals are eliminated this year. What's the point, one might ask?
I don't really have an answer for you. You have to answer that yourself. Baseball in and of itself is a hobby; the quality of any individual game doesn't have any impact on the quality of the concept of baseball as entertainment.. But the quality of an individual game can impact the quality of the entertainment; that's only fair.
Herrera stared down Robbie Grossman, trying to protect the tie and keep the runners at the corners as runners at the corners. On a 2-2 count, Herrera reached back and unleashed one of his filthy changeups--but this one had been recently cleaned. Grossman singled to center, scoring Buxton. It was the first of three runs Herrera would yield.
If this was two months ago, the ninth ending would have been demoralizing. Herrera's three runs put a possible comeback into more difficult territory. Despite that, the Royals fought back, as only the Royals can. Butera and Dyson singles were followed by a Merrifield walk. After that walk, Hosmer swing at the very first pitch, which of course turned into a double play. Still, even that scored a run, and Salvador Perez, pinch hitting for H. Dozier, knocked a single in to score Dyson from third. Terrance Gore, fastest man in baseball, replaced Perez on the basepaths.
Terrance Gore, fastest man in baseball and the tying run, was picked off first base to end the game. The final score: Twins 7, Royals 6.
Duffy's status as season microcosm was only surpassed by this game. The Royals surged, faltered, and made a comeback, only to squander it. Their second comeback came up short.
If this was two months ago, I would have been pretty angry at the Royals. At Gore's pickoff, Hosmer's double play in a crucial inning, at Herrera's lost runs. But this season is over. The only thing left to play for is pride. Kansas City played a hard-fought game and ultimately lost. There's nothing wrong with that.