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Royals eager to see how Duffy fares coming off rehab

Lefty penciled in behind Chen in first spring game

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The green infield grass is deep emerald in the sun. The dirt around the pitching rubber is raked smooth as silk. A white chalk silhouette of a batter flanked by the black outlines of cactus is drawn behind home plate. Beyond center field, wispy clouds touch the distant mountains.

The field is vacant, the stands of Surprise Stadium are empty.

They won't be Thursday when the Royals and Rangers wake up this desert town with the sounds of baseball and the smell of hot dogs as they get their Cactus League schedule underway at 2:05 p.m. CT at the complex they've shared for 12 years. Fans can listen to the game live on Gameday Audio.

"We've waited the entire offseason to get back to here and we're excited to start the spring off and see what we've got and see what we've got to work on going forward into camp," said Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.

The Royals have some new faces for their fans to check out, notably right fielder Nori Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante who'll be at the top of the lineup this season, batting 1-2.

There'll be a flurry of excitement for the Japanese journalistic corps when two of their country's products face off in the bottom of the first inning: Aoki will lead off against Rangers ace Yu Darvish.

The Rangers decided to open the Cactus League season with Darvish, already designated as their Opening Day pitcher against the Phillies.

"Perfect," Moustakas said. "It's a great way to start off the season. The other day I had to face Shieldsy and Vargas (James Shields and Jason Vargas) in live BP so Yu Darvish. ... It'll be fun."

The Royals will counter with left-hander Bruce Chen, their fourth starter. Their likely Opening Day starter, Shields, won't start until Friday, also against the Rangers.

There's not much to be made of pitching matchups at the beginning stages of the Cactus League, however. The starters usually pitch just two innings, or less if their pitch count gets a bit high. The Royals aim for about 40 pitches.

So a parade of pitchers is planned. Penciled in behind Chen are Danny Duffy, Donnie Joseph, Cory Wade, Guillermo Mota, Scott Alexander and Kelvin Herrera. Chen, Duffy, Joseph and Alexander are all lefties.

Duffy is of particular interest because he's coming off a rehabilitation year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He made five starts with a 1.85 ERA for Kansas City but was shut down for the last three weeks with some arm inflammation.

"I can't wait to go out there to that game action," Duffy said. "It's a long layoff. Even when you get here, you wait to get back into those games. It's going to be a lot of fun. I'm ready to go. I feel really good, I feel better than I have in a long time."

Behind Darvish for the Rangers are Tommy Hanson, Justin Germano, Ryan Feierabend and Lisalverto Bonilla.

The Royals will have to wait a while before seeing Infante work with shortstop Alcides Escobar in a Cactus League game. Escobar won't play Thursday; instead, he'll work out, then leave for Miami where his wife Francys is to give birth to a boy Saturday.

Pedro Ciriaco probably will start at shortstop instead. Otherwise the starting lineup also will include regulars Alex Gordon in left field, Lorenzo Cain in center, Eric Hosmer at first base, Salvador Perez catching and Billy Butler at designated hitter.

The starting lineup and four of the five pitching rotation spots are set so there seem to be relatively few questions for manager Ned Yost to answer in the 30 Spring Training games.

"I've got fewer questions but the questions I have are larger than they've ever been. So it kind of balances out," Yost said.

"How are we going to put together one of the best pitching staffs in the American League? Do we take five outfielders, five infielders? Do we take four outfielders, six infielders? Who's going to be the backup catcher? These are all going to be big questions to answer. Even though we have less decisions to make, the decisions that we have to make are going to be tougher than they've been before so it balances out."

The Royals are eager to continue building on what the team accomplished in 2013 with its late-season bid for a postseason berth.

"Winning cures all. The organization is happy, the players are happy, the coaches are happy and, more importantly, the fans are happy," Butler said. "They're ready for us to come back already, especially after the way the Chiefs played. It's been a great year sports-wise. We're ready to start it off again."

Chen also remembers the excitement of the 2013 stretch drive.

"We were playing and competing against the best in our division and the best in the American League. And we were beating them, we were playing right there toe-to-toe," Chen said. "Not only that but seeing the city transforming to 'We believe, we can do this' was exciting."

First, though, there is a lengthy Spring Training schedule to get through before the March 31 regular-season opener at Detroit.

"It's hard not to look forward to what's next, but right now we've got a lot of things to do to get ready," Duffy said.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for

Kansas City Royals, Bruce Chen, Danny Duffy, Eric Hosmer, James Shields