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Royals' postseason hopes shaken after Danny Duffy's one-pitch start

Danny Duffy has been a key part of the Royals' surge to the top of the American League Central standings over the last three months. After his early exit on Saturday afternoon, Kansas City is left wondering what part, if any, he will play in the final three weeks of the season, as the Royals try to fight off the Tigers and clinch their first postseason berth since 1985. Duffy threw just one pitch in his start at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Before he even completed his follow-through, Duffy’s face showed a grimace of pain laced with disappointment and frustration, and catcher Salvador Perez signaled to the Royals' dugout for the trainer. Duffy came out of the game after a short conversation with the trainer and manager Ned Yost without even attempting another pitch. After the game, the team said Duffy would head back to Kansas City for an MRI of his left shoulder.

Per the Kansas City Star’s Vahe Gregorian, Duffy said after the game that he couldn’t get loose in the bullpen and when he threw that first pitch in the game it felt like “a vise-grip on my shoulder.” However, he was also optimistic, saying that he didn’t think the injury would end his season and that his poor bullpen wasn’t anything unusual for him. “I feel like if it was really, really messed up that it would feel really bad right now,” Duffy said, “and right now, it's just [aching].”

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Yost said that Duffy would likely miss at least one start, but that is all the team can assume until Duffy’s MRI results come back. Whatever the outcome is there, it doesn’t sound good for Duffy or the Royals, who, prior to Saturday’s game, had gone 52-33 (.612) since the start of June. Duffy posted a 2.04 ERA in 17 starts over that stretch with the team going 10-7 (.588) in those games. A former top prospect who had Tommy John surgery in June 2012 and a flexor strain in his elbow that ended his 2013 season at almost exactly this point last year (his last start was on September 7), Duffy opened this season with one start in Triple-A before being promoted to the Royals’ bullpen, but moved to the rotation at the start of May and has compiled the fifth-best ERA in the majors on the season (2.42).

There has been a significant amount of luck in Duffy’s success this season. His opponents have hit just .234 on balls in play, and despite an extreme fly ball rate, his home-run rate and home-runs-per-fly-ball rate are well below league average. The Royals' outstanding outfield defense and spacious home ballpark have thus no doubt played a large role in his success. Indeed, Duffy has allowed just three home runs at home in 67 1/3 innings, though his home run rate on the road is still below average and his 2.19 road ERA is even better than his home mark despite the higher home-run rate. That makes sense given Duffy’s other peripherals on the road, as he is striking out batters more frequently on the road and walking them less than half as often. On the season, however, his strikeout and walk rates are below average.

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Nonetheless, even if Duffy has been overly dependent upon his defense, that is very much the Royals’ modus operandi this season, and Duffy’s success, whatever its source, has been a key part of their ascension. Beyond that, Duffy has been the only one of several contemporary Royals’ rotation prospects to do as much as make a start in a Royals uniform to this point, making him a key pre-arbitration part of an otherwise expensive Royals rotation along with fireballer Yordano Ventura.

It’s worth noting here that Duffy’s injury came almost exactly at the moment that he surpassed his career-high in innings. Duffy threw 147 innings between the majors and minors in 2011 and had thrown 147 1/3 this year before his lone pitch on Saturday. That doesn’t mean that Duffy was due to break down. Far from it. But Duffy had reached a point that the team had planned to be careful with him. The Royals did not have an innings limit on Duffy, indeed he could have pitched through the end of the regular season without exceeding his previous innings high by a troubling amount, but that caution may have played a role in Duffy’s quick exit on Saturday. Per Gregorian, Yost said that Duffy wanted to try to get his shoulder loose before coming out of the game, but the team didn’t want to take a risk with the young lefty.

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For now, the Royals plan to use 25-year-old journeyman righty Liam Hendriks, who is on his fifth organization since last fall, in Duffy's stead. The only other two pitchers to have started for Kansas City to this point in the season other than Duffy and the other four already in their rotation are Bruce Chen, who was released on Friday, and Aaron Brooks, who gave up 13 runs in 2 2/3 innings in his brief major league opportunity in May and was not among the team’s September call-ups earlier this week. Hendriks, a strike-throwing Aussie who gave up four runs in four innings in emergency relief of Duffy in the Royals' 6-3 loss on Saturday, career ERA of 5.93, the third-highest by a pitcher with 140 or more career innings pitched who has appeared in the major leagues this year. Outside of his. Outside of his sparkling walk rate, his peripherals are equally garish.

With just three weeks left in the season, the Royals are nursing a two-game lead in the Central over the Tigers, who lost to the Giants on Saturday. Prolonged exposure​ of Hendriks in the rotation could make the difference in the division. With the Mariners, the team holding the second wild-card spot in the AL, currently just a game behind the Royals in the overall standings, a wild-card berth is not guaranteed to the second-place team in the Central. It’s no wonder Duffy and Yost tried to put as positive a spin on Duffy’s injury as possible after Saturday’s game. With the Royals so close to ending 28 years of futility, the thought of Duffy missing significant time could be too much for the team to bear.