For fans, baseball is the rhythm of the summer. Games fill the days and provide the soundtrack to the nights. Reliable.
For the players and managers, baseball is a grind. A matter of survival for six months for the bonus of playing into a seventh.
The grind is something to keep in mind over the next couple of weeks, as the Royals strive to complete 18 games in 17 days. The weatherman has not helped their cause as rainouts called for the Royals to play a doubleheader out of the gate to start the second half and to sacrifice what was to be an offday this Thursday. The grind demands that Ned Yost use his roster with an eye on the big picture. A game may be lost in this stretch for the greater good. A struggling starter may be left in the game longer than usual, or a reliever from the back end of the bullpen may be summoned in a key situation. Planning and preparation are great, but sometimes the baseball gods don’t give a damn.
On Sunday in Chicago, just three days into the second half of the season, the Royals bullpen was spent.
Every Royals reliever, save Brandon Finnegan, had thrown Friday and Saturday. And just ahead of the game the Royals had shipped Finnegan back to Omaha so they could bring in the fresh arm of Yohan Pino. There was still Joe Blanton, but he figured to be the reliever on the out when Kris Medlen was activated. Before the game, Yost said his list of available relievers was Pino and Blanton. The end.
To say there was a tremendous amount of pressure on Danny Duffy would be an understatement. Before Sunday in Chicago, Duffy had made 69 starts in his major league career. In those outings, he had thrown seven innings nine times. He had thrown a pitch in the eighth inning of a start only once. In that game against the White Sox a year ago June, he threw just two pitches, allowing a single to Adam Eaton, before he was lifted for the relief corps. Duffy doesn’t pitch deep into games because he has a tendency to bloat his pitch counts. It’s an issue that has dogged him his entire career. The knock on Duffy as a starter is he will jump ahead and nibble to get that third strike.
The Duffy we have seen since his return from the disabled list is a different one we’ve ever seen. He’s focused on making his mechanics more repeatable, content on throwing strikes and letting his defense help him collect outs. Duffy’s whiff rate as a (mostly) starter last year was 6.8 SO/9. Over his previous four starts, it was a Guthrie-esque 4.2 SO/9. Opponents are hitting .271/.337/.400 off Duffy in those 23.2 innings, but his 3.0 BB/9 and the fact he’s has allowed only two home runs means he’s keeping runs off the board. Well, that and some fortunate sequencing.
The benefits of his new mound strategy were evident three outs into the game. The first batter, Adam Eaton hit a smash to Mike Moustakas at third. Moustakas got a glove to it, but only enough to ricochet to Escobar at short, who fired to first to get the leadoff man. One out later, Escobar ranges to his left, pivots, and throws out Jose Abreu for the final out of the inning.
(I would love to use video from these plays to enhance my post, but MLBAM doesn’t want to spread the gospel of the game. Why promote the amazing? Thanks for nothing, MLBAM.)
Duffy crushed through the first five innings, needing only 57 pitches to retire 15 batters. By that point, we had what could be called a very promising start. The Royals, however, didn’t need promising. They needed length. They needed at least seven innings from Duffy, maybe more depending on the margin late in the game. In the sixth, the wheels threatened to fall off.
With the score 2-0, the Sox opened the inning with back to back singles. Tyler Saladino was out at first on a sacrifice bunt, moving the tying runs into scoring position for Abreu and Melky Cabrera, the Sox third and fourth place hitters. If Chicago was going to rally, this was the moment.
Against left-handed pitching, Abreu is susceptible to fastballs up and away. He also struggles against the curve down and in. In the most important plate appearance of the start, take a gander at how Duffy worked Abreu.
Pitches 3, 6, 7, and 8 were curves Abreu fouled off. Pitches 1, 4, and 5 were fastballs. Abreu swung and missed on pitch number 1. After six consecutive foul balls, Duffy reared back and deposited a 95 mph fastball in a spot where Abreu couldn’t get any part of his bat on the ball. Swing and a miss. Amazing.
As epic a moment that was in the game, Duffy wasn’t out of the woods. Up stepped Cabrera, who had already collected a pair of hits against Duffy on the day. Both hits had come on fastballs in the lower part of the zone.
Against left-handers, the book on Cabrera is to throw up and away.
The first pitch in the plate appearance was a low fastball. Exactly the kind of pitch Cabrera had barreled for a base hit in his previous two at bats. He took it for strike one. After getting ahead, Duffy seemed to lose his release point and delivered two fastballs up and so far out of the zone, there was no way Cabrera was going to chase those. Duffy then came back with a beautiful curve perfectly placed in the upper, outside quadrant of the strike zone that Cabrera took for a strike. He’s hitting .105 on pitches in that area, so he probably figures it’s OK to let that one go. Cabrera fouls off two more pitches and watches another hit the dirt. With the count full, Duffy spins his finest curve of the day, in the perfect spot.
Duffy was gassed after the sixth when he threw his 85th pitch.
Paulo Orlando doubled Duffy’s cushion with a home run to left of center in the top of the seventh and, despite the diminished velocity, Duffy worked a clean seventh and eighth, getting four ground outs, a strikeout, and a fly out. That’s kind of how the afternoon went for Duffy. Of the 24 outs he recorded, 15 came on the ground. Quite the anomaly for the guy with a 37 percent ground ball rate.
And how many spectacular defensive plays were made up the middle for Duffy? This team never fails to amaze on defense. Escobar started a hellacious double play in the fourth. Omar Infante chipped in with a couple of stellar defensive plays himself. And the Shortstop Jesus himself closed it out with another mind-bending play deep in the hole at short. If the Gold Glove awards were like the Emmys, this would be the game Escobar would submit to the judges. He was spectacular. Amazing. Superb. Pick your damn adjective and it’s not good enough. That’s how great Escobar was in this game.
Duffy, who had never gotten an out in the eighth inning of a game he started, recorded three. He returned for the ninth, but was pulled after he gave up a home run. Joe Blanton, whose Royal clock is ticking down, recorded his first career save. Baseball.
This team is something special.
They were two very different scenarios, but late in Duffy’s start on Sunday, I flashed back to Yordano Ventura’s Game Six start against the Giants last October. Similar, in that a young Royals starter was entrusted to succeed in a high-pressure situation. Similar in that both excelled, giving hope for tomorrow and further into the future. This wasn’t Game Six, but the Royals are leading the Central and have designs on playing deep into the postseason once again. These games are important, too. Especially against bottom-feeding teams like the White Sox.
Monday is Ventura’s turn to show what he has in the chamber for the second half. If Duffy and Ventura step forward for this team, the sky is the limit. The second half is off to a pretty good start.