Kansas City will visit Cleveland today for Opening Day in Major League Baseball, but it’s shaping up more like the Battle of Greater Santa Barbara.
Montecito’s Danny Duffy versus Goleta’s Shane Bieber.
The two local residents will be pitted against each other as starting pitchers when the two American League clubs open the long-awaited baseball season at 4:10 p.m PDT at Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
It will be Duffy’s third Opening Day start — he also pitched the Royals’ first games of 2017 and 2018 — but it also ranks as the most meaningful. The coronavirus delayed this season’s start by nearly four months and trimmed the 162-game schedule to just 60.
“Even more so now, I’m really pumped about it,” he said of the assignment. “It means a lot to me. I’ve put in a lot of work.”
Duffy, who was drafted by the Royals just after his graduation from Cabrillo High School in 2007, is a 31-year-old veteran with 181 starts during nine seasons in the big leagues. But Bieber, who turned 25 just two months ago, will be making his first Opening Day start as the new ace of the Indians.
“I was able to put in some work during the quarantine and get ready to rock,” Bieber told reporters after pitching a simulated game on Sunday. “I feel we managed not only my buildup, but everybody’s buildup really well.
“I feel as a team, we’re definitely ready to rock, but on a personal level, I’m stoked for Opening Day. I’m ready to go.”
He’s never shied away from a challenge. Bieber, who came to the Gauchos as a non-scholarship player, told a group of young Indian fans this week that he barely made UCSB’s team during the autumn of 2013.
“They’ve got guys who are on scholarship that they’re going to keep,” Bieber said. “It came down to like me versus two other guys and I had to out-perform them in the fall. And fortunately, I did, and they were some pretty good ball players, too.
“Fortunately, our head coach was a bit of a sucker for starting pitchers, and it ended up working out.”
It worked out so well that Bieber won 23 games in three seasons at UCSB, ranking third in the school record books. He went 12-4 with a 2.74 ERA in 2016 to lead the Gauchos to their first and only College World Series.
Just two years later, he got a mid-season call-up to Cleveland and posted a win-loss record of 11-5. He followed that up by leading the Indians in victories last year with a 15-8 mark.
Bieber also ranked third in the American League with 259 strikeouts and fourth in earned run average at 3.28.
A defining moment came during last year’s MLB All-Star Game before a hometown crowd in Cleveland. He told the young Indian fans this week that it also became his most nerve-wracking moment when he lost a contact lens while warming up in the bullpen.
“I couldn’t really see the bullpen catcher,” Bieber said. “I told the bullpen coach, ‘Dude, everything’s blurry.’… I was kind of freaking out. Everything started closing in a little bit.
“He asked, ‘Do you want me to call down and find somebody else?’ And I said, ‘No, we’re not doing that … I’ll go out there and we’ll figure it out.’”
He wound up striking out the National League’s Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte and Ronald Acuna Jr. in succession to preserve the American League’s 1-0 lead. The A.L. continued on to win, 4-3, and Bieber was selected as the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I ended up figuring it out and I’d say it worked pretty well,” Bieber observed. “So long story short, now I only pitch with one contact in… No, I’m just kidding.”
Duffy also had an interesting backstory to tell during the COVID-19 hiatus. He helped Kansas City win the 2015 World Series, pitching in three of its five games against the New York Mets. But he said the Royals might not have made it to the Fall Classic had he been present for their epic rally against Houston in Game Four of the A.L. Divisional Series.
The Royals were trailing 6-2 in the top of the eighth inning when he went to relieve himself in the bullpen’s bathroom. Two of his teammates promptly rapped singles. Fellow pitcher Chris Young quickly concluded that Duffy would help win the game by being a different kind of relief pitcher: by continuing his good-luck potty break.
“I tried to come out,” Duffy revealed, “and he said, ‘Get back in that bathroom.’”
He spent the next 20 minutes in the john. All he knew of Kansas City’s rally was what he could deduce from the crowd’s roar.
“I didn’t get to see it, didn’t get to see a single pitch,” Duffy said. “I poked my head down to see who’s like warming up and C.Y. said, ‘Get back in there!’ I was like, ‘OK.’ Same seat, same spot, keep the vibe kind of alive.”
Young finally let Duffy out of the bathroom after the Royals had scored five runs to take a 7-6 lead.
The local left-hander has gotten plenty of chances to pitch the last decade. He enters today’s game with 60 career wins. His best season came in 2016 when he went 12-3 with 188 strikeouts and a 3.83 ERA.
Duffy had a good start to spring training when the coronavirus put a break on play. He had pitched six scoreless innings in two games, allowing just four hits with nine strikeouts. Manager Mike Matheny even announced that the Opening Day start would go to either Duffy or Brad Keller, last year’s No. 1.
And then Keller came down with COVID-19 on July 7. He returned to training only this week.
“I feel so bad for Brad,” Duffy said. “I really wanted this to be a competition. I thought it would be a heated one. But I’m ready for it, man.”
The game will be played without fans, which Duffy admits will make for an adjustment.
“I know we’re not going to have the atmosphere… It is going to be different,” he said. “But we’re going to be ready for it. You can normalize anything if you put your mind to it.
“We’re a team that’s younger than it has been in the past. This format may very well play right into our hands and I’m really looking forward to seeing how we do, how we fare.”
The break, after all, is over — potty or otherwise.