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02/25/11 3:52 PM EST

Duffy takes second opportunity in stride

22-year-old has chance to nab one of five open spots in bullpen

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- About 11 months ago, Danny Duffy took a break from baseball and went home to California. But the left-handed pitcher didn't stay away long, and now he's trying to become part of the Royals' pitching staff.

Duffy was one of the club's premier starting prospects, he was in the 2009 All-Star Futures Game and he'd been in the 2010 Major League training camp for a while. So when he left the Minor League camp on March 23 of last year, it was unsettling for the organization.

He had some personal matters to sort through.

"I wasn't mature enough to handle what was going on. A couple things went downhill," Duffy said. "And, because I went home, I am able to handle things and I'm ready to just keep playing now."

Back home last spring, Duffy got antsy.

"I stayed in shape at home and got really hungry watching baseball at night and seeing people I pitched against doing their thing in the big leagues," Duffy said. "And that kind of lit the fire back."

He returned to the organization on June 2 and swiftly worked his way into shape, pitching for four different teams during the course of the summer.

"The Royals were great about that, letting me do that. It's not something I'm proud of but it was necessary, and them giving me that opportunity to go home and get that chance to miss it again was crucial," Duffy said. "And they put me right back into the mold and gave me that chance to move up to where I was going to be anyway. And I can't really be thankful enough for the way that they handled it. I'm sure a lot of organizations wouldn't have given me that opportunity."

Duffy worked through the Rookie classification teams at Surprise and Idaho Falls, went to the Advanced-A team at Wilmington and wound up at the Double-A level with Texas League champion Northwest Arkansas. He made seven starts for the Naturals, went 5-2 with a 2.95 ERA and also was 1-0 in two playoff starts.

In the playoffs he also had 15 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings. His victory came over Midland in the first game of the final round.

"I turned it up a little bit there, maybe a little bit too much," he said. "But we got it done. I think my best game of the year was probably that Game 1 of the championship series, because I was pitching to contact more, where in the first round I was just trying to dominate like I had in Class A."

For the summer, combined with four teams, he rang up 69 strikeouts with just 17 walks in 62 1/3 innings. Then he made up for lost time with seven outings in the Arizona Fall League.

Now Duffy, 22 years old and with four Minor League seasons behind him, is considered one of the more advanced pitchers in the large young crop in the Royals' camp. If he doesn't crack the starting rotation, it's possible he could take one of the five open spots in the bullpen, where manager Ned Yost wants two or three lefties.

"It's really exciting to think how many of us have an opportunity. It's all up for grabs and it's just going to be a fun year for everybody, because I think there's going to be a lot of people getting a shot," Duffy said. "It's gonna be cool."

Duffy grew up in Lompoc, Calif., the only child of Dan and Deanna Duffy. His dad is a background investigator for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. Both parents were ballplayers, and it was his mom who often threw batting practice for him right up through high school.

"She's got a really good arm. She used to play in all the men's leagues and she was the only lady there," he said. "She's real petite and real small, but she can get it done so it was fun."

His mother, he said, was a catcher for the first softball team at her high school.

"She wasn't on the Rockford Peaches or anything," he said, laughing.

Duffy played for Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, a town noted for being the site of a large federal prison complex. In his senior season, he had a modest 5-3 record but an ERA of 0.60 and a whopping 127 strikeouts in just 58 2/3 innings. The Royals made him a third-round Draft choice.

"I was just blessed with the opportunity to throw as hard as I could, but now it's kind of nice to learn how to pitch," he said.

Duffy's fastball can reach up to 96 mph but he estimates that he works in the 92-95 range. He also throws a curveball and a changeup.

The Royals are happy to have him back.

"He went home and did some soul-searching and realized that this is where he wanted to be. It's history and it's gone and we don't handle him any differently than we do anybody else," Yost said.

And Duffy is happy that he's back.

"Baseball is great, it's nice to play with these guys and be able to connect with everybody again," he said. "These guys are like brothers. I've been playing with the same core of guys the last four years so it's been nice to stick together. Hopefully it'll translate to wins at the big league level."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.