CHICAGO — Danny Duffy waited 762 days to return to this ballpark, the sight of his most vulnerable moment as a major-leaguer. He allowed himself a moment of reflection as he stood inside the visitors’ bullpen at U.S. Cellular Field before a 9-1 stomping of the Chicago White Sox. “The last time I was here,” he said to himself as he warmed up, “I went under the knife.”
On Mother’s Day 2012, Duffy felt discomfort in his left elbow after facing three batters here. An MRI later revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Tommy John surgery cost him the rest of that season, sidelined him for most of the next and shunted him into the minor leagues to start 2014.
On the day before Fathers’ Day 2014, with his dad in the stands, Duffy completed an exemplary outing. He subdued the White Sox for seven scoreless innings and matched a career-best with nine strikeouts. He stood guard as his teammates thumped their opponents en route to their sixth consecutive victory.
“That’s one of the best I’ve seen from him in a long time,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said of the game.
For most of the afternoon, Duffy (4-5, 2.83 ERA) channeled the fury that fuels him and displayed the reasons why this organization tabbed him as a future pillar. He favored his fastball, which buzzed as hard as 97 mph, and flashed the occasional changeup or sweeping slider. When his command wavered in the game’s closing stages, he trusted his defenders behind him.
Three starts ago, Duffy saw his velocity sink into the upper 80s. The team diagnosed him with a case of arm fatigue, which they attacked in the trainers room with vigor. In his three outings since, he’s allowed three runs in 18 2/3 frames. Saturday was his finest effort yet.
A redemptive step for Duffy coincided with yet another offensive outburst from the Royals (35-32). The White Sox opened the door a crack with a series of fourth-inning miscues; their guests ripped the door from its hinges with a five-run haymaker to eject starter Hector Noesi from the proceedings.
In the latter frames, the blows continued to fall. Mike Moustakas swatted a solo shot in the eighth for his third hit of the game. Eric Hosmer roped an RBI double in the ninth, and Billy Butler provided his second homer of the season in the next at-bat.
“We’re really starting to click offensively, in all the facets,” Butler said. “You’re seeing what we’re capable of doing, day in and day out right now.” He added, “We’re doing everything fundamentally right.”
To manager Ned Yost, the evidence of progress appeared in the fourth. Credit for the critical rally’s origins belong with the Royals. Butler worked a leadoff walk. Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez followed with singles. The bases were loaded, and the White Sox stood on the precipice of their defensive collapse.
“Earlier in the year, we’d get something going and get one or two out of it,” Yost said. “Now, when we’re swinging the bats better, we’re getting four and five.”
The scoring started with Lorenzo Cain. He smoked a grounder at third baseman Leury Garcia, who let the ball skip between his legs. Two runs scored. A third came home when Moustakas’ pop-up dropped into shallow left center. Nori Aoki grounded into a double play that scored a run, and Omar Infante slapped an RBI single to cap the onslaught.
The lead was Duffy’s to protect. He set his initial career high on June 19, 2011 — almost a lifetime ago, in terms of his development. After his surgery the next summer, Duffy slogged through 20 months of rehabilitation and frustration to return himself to this moment. The injury added another chapter to the narrative he has crafted for himself.
Away from the field, he is a laconic, laid-back presence. His persona exemplifies the Californian clichés: Sandals on his feet, reggae music in his earbuds, a can of Red Bull in his hand to rouse him for the coming day. Yet on the mound he snarls and swears and stalks off the rubber when innings end.
“I’ve been an underdog for most of my life,” Duffy said. “I was a little guy in high school until my senior year. I’ve just always pitched like that. It’s made we better at times; sometimes it’s hurt me. But we’re learning how to channel it right now.”
One of his mentors is James Shields, another Southern Californian prone to smiling in the clubhouse and screaming into his glove. Shields advised Duffy to embrace his personality, not run from it.
The White Sox suffered from his improvement on Saturday. Duffy struck out six batters in the first three innings. He fooled second baseman Gordon Beckham with a slider in the fifth. An inning later, he elevated a 95-mph fastball that Paul Konerko couldn’t handle. When catcher Tyler Flowers swung through another high fastball, Duffy tied his previous best.
He hoped for another chance in the eighth. After a leadoff single, Yost climbed the dugout steps and joined his infielders on the mound. Duffy pleaded his case.
“Skip,” Duffy asked, “can I get one more?”
“Yeah,” Yost said. “You can get one more.”
Sweet, Duffy thought. He was unprepared for the punchline. “Next outing,” Yost said, and he reached out to take the ball.
And Danny Duffy, so often a ball of rage on the mound, left the diamond laughing.