It was almost as if he hadn’t missed any time at all.

Danny Duffy returned to the Royals rotation on Monday and provided yet another lock-down start as the Royals held the Indians 2-0. It was their 14th shutout of the season. The improbable year of 2014 just rolls along.

Make no mistake. This game was huge. Massive. And Duffy answered the bell.

Duffy, who left his last start on September 5th in New York after one pitch with a sore shoulder, and was skipped twice in the rotation, came out with his left arm blazing. He threw a total of 96 pitches in going six innings. Duffy allowed just six hits, walked two and whiffed five in keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard.

It’s the final week of the regular season. All starts are important. Duffy answered the bell. Big time.

In a way, it’s almost as if Duffy’s shoulder soreness was a good thing. He bought himself three starts (counting the one in New York that was just a single pitch) of rest during a crucial start of the season. Could the Royals have used him in those starts? Hell, yes. The Royals lost all three games. But if the end result was simply forcing the Royals to tread playoff water a little longer while getting a rested Duffy back for the final week and the postseason… I’ll gladly take it.

Duffy wasn’t super sharp out of the gate, which given what we know about how amped up he gets, is understandable. He needed 24 pitches to survive the first and another 20 to get through the second. In both those innings, he walked the leadoff hitter. In the first, the Indians followed up the walk with back to back singles. In my mind, this was the key moment of the game. Early. Duffy needed to survive a rocky start. Confidence is too often dismissed among the sabermetric community, but it certainly plays a role. Especially when a player is coming back from injury. Especially when that player is Duffy. With the bases chucked, Duffy got Carlos Santana on a pop up behind second and froze Yan Gomes with a nifty curveball. He then got Mike Aviles to fly out. Crisis averted.

The threat in the second wasn’t as immediate, as Duffy retired the next two hitters after his leadoff walk, but still impressive. Yet after needing 44 pitches to get through two innings, it looked like it could be a short night for Duffy. Except he came out in the third and was a different pitcher.

Overall, Duffy’s velocity was down about a mile per hour. For the year, his fastball is averaging close to 94 mph. On Monday it was clocking in around 93 mph. He also lost quite a bit of steam as the game evolved. Maybe that was pounding three Red Bulls before arriving at the stadium as he told Andy McCullough. The proof is in the graph. Duffy came out on fire, but there was no way he could keep up the pace he set for himself in the first.

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When he was wild with his fastball, he was up in the zone. Way up at times. To my untrained blogger eye, it looked like he was overthrowing and couldn’t get his release point right. Again, a case of Duffy being Duffy. Too amped up for his own good. Except the difference is this year, he’s been able to check himself and get back under control.

I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but we really need to think about James Shields and his role in helping Duffy succeed as a starter. Both pitchers have a very similar mentality. I feel as though I write this after every successful Duffy start this season, but he doesn’t have this success if Shields isn’t in the clubhouse as his mentor. We can poo-pooh the role of veteran leadership all we want, but there are times when it’s an actual fact. We get force-fed the Jeff Francoeurs as leaders far too often so perhaps we’re a bit jaded when it comes to that, but Shields is the real deal. A guy who can back it up on the field and commands a ton of respect in the clubhouse. It’s just not a coincidence that Duffy has found the strength to be a starter. Think about it. This was a guy who was practically begging to be sent to the bullpen to open the season. Six months later, he is a key member of a rotation that is potentially headed to October. Huge.

Make no mistake, this win was the biggest of the year for the Royals. So far. Cleveland worried me, especially coming into this series. To get a win under the belt when the other contenders are struggling is massive.


Notes from the postseason files

— The Royals finally completed that suspended game. How stupid has that been to have that hanging over our heads? Every time I look at the standings, I’ve been factoring it in as a loss. The Royals made it a little more interesting than I thought they would. Always entertaining to see Ned Yost insert pinch runners like they’re quarters in a Pac Man machine. The irony of the completion of the suspended game was it came down to Omar Infante, who was hitting second in the lineup. Of course, he’s since been removed from the second spot because he’s one of the worst offensive performers in the American League this year not named Jeter. It only took Yost 148 games to figure that out. Yet there he was, hitting with the game on the line and for some reason Yost didn’t pinch hit for him.

Why? Yost entered this inning with three weeks to plan. Why in the world do you pinch run twice and not have someone replace Infante with the tying run on second base. If this was a random game in May, I’d make some snark about Yost just not wanting to win. But damnit, this is the last week of the season and the team is in playoff position. Manage like your hair is on fire. Or like your job is on the line.

— A lot of sound and fury coming out of Atlanta after they fired their General Manager that Dayton Moore could be a candidate for the job.

If that’s truly the case, go ahead. I remain unimpressed with him, despite the Royals position as we inch toward the finish line of 2014. While I acknowledge his plan has certainly come together, I wonder about the future of this team. It’s kind of dumb to be on the cusp of the postseason for the first time in a generation and a half to be thinking about the future, but I’m not certain this team is positioned for a lengthy challenge of any sort. We’ve gone over all the issues and for me, one nice run doesn’t erase the shortcomings of this brain trust.

I know there are skeptics in the KC media that he would go. I think Dayton is smart enough to recognize an opportunity to leverage his position. He’s signed through the 2016 season. He’s about to achieve a massive goal in reaching the postseason. While the Braves job remains open he should use it to strengthen his hand in Kansas City. Does he need more power? Does he need more money? More security beyond 2016? Everything should be on the table. And if he’s lucky enough to get an offer in Atlanta, he will be in the ultimate power position.

Nothing is certain. It’s always about the money.

— Detroit was shutout at home, 2-0 to Chris Bassitt and the Chicago White Sox. Seattle was blown out by Toronto. The Royals, despite losing a game before dinner, are a single game behind the Tigers. They are two up on Seattle for the Wild Card.

Can you smell that, Kansas City? Playoffs.

The Royals magic number to clinch a spot is five.

That’s the first time I’ve ever used the phrase magic number in a blog post about the Royals.