ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Let’s for a moment push aside the redemptive element of J.A. Happ’s performance Saturday night at the site of his frightening injury three months ago, and instead focus on the sudden lift the left-hander is giving the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff.
With 5.1 innings of two-run ball against the Tampa Bay Rays in a 6-2 victory, Happ has now posted back-to-back solid outings against the two American League wild card leaders, having held the Oakland Athletics to a run on three hits over seven frames Monday.
Given the opponents and what’s at stake for them, it’s probably his best stretch of this truncated season, and offers a timely window into what Happ, still wearing a brace on his right knee and just from a bereavement leave after his grandfather’s death, can bring to the Blue Jays rotation.
“The first time I ever saw him was in spring training the last time I was here, he pitched a game for the Phillies against us, he just blew us away and it caught my eye back then,” said manager John Gibbons. “He’s got a fastball he can get good hitters out with, his big thing was what is his command going to be. It was shaky out there in Seattle, and then his start against Oakland the other day, his first inning was so-so, then he just kicked it in and finished really strong that day.
"He looked like basically the same guy again today, got a couple of strikeouts, pumping the fastball away. It's in there, it's hard to find good lefties, and he's definitely one of those guys."
Of all the issues GM Alex Anthopoulos must resolve, the starting rotation is front and centre. Upgrading the defence will help on that front, but things rarely turn out well when a team runs out 13 different starters in a single season.
A healthy Happ, due $5.2 million in 2014 as part of an extension signed this spring, can certainly help on that front, but it's worth remembering that he only opened the season in the rotation as a result of Ricky Romero's demotion. Had Romero not collapsed, Happ would likely have started the year in the bullpen, if not at the front of triple-A Buffalo's rotation.
The Blue Jays have only seen the 30-year-old in bits and pieces, as his 2012 campaign was cut short by a broken foot and he's now made three starts since returning from the knee sprain he suffered May 7 while collapsing after Desmond Jennings' line drive struck him in the head.
A few more outings like his last two, and it will start becoming harder to not see him as a fixture on the 2014 staff.
"A little bit," Happ said when asked if the long absence made 2013 feel like two separate seasons. "I feel like I missed so much time because to me it seemed like it took forever to get back, but at the same time, there's almost two full months to pitch coming back, that's quite a bit of season left. I've still got a ways to go, I still feel like I have time to try and finish the season, at least."
Behind Happ are a number of internal pitching options the Blue Jays will have next year that they didn't in 2013, and that layer of depth might have made a difference in this star-crossed season.
Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are both on their way back from Tommy John surgery and will be up in September, prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin, the latter promoted from double-A to Buffalo on Saturday, are coming quick, while Esmil Rogers at minimum has shown the ability to be a swingman.
Then there's Romero, who threw seven innings of one-run ball in Buffalo's 7-2 win Saturday over Pawtucket to move the Bisons half a game back of the Red Sox in the International League's wild-card race. The consistency he needs to show in order to earn a September call-up isn't there yet, but he remains an intriguing possibility lurking in the weeds.
All that will play out over time, and in the interim, Happ is restating his case, in case anyone's forgetting.
"You never know what you're going to get coming off the injury he had and the length of time he was gone, but they signed him for a reason, we figured the opportunity here, he could thrive," said Gibbons. "He's showed that. He's pitched some pretty good ballgames in the past against some teams in our division."
Happ pitched another one Saturday, retiring his first nine batters before banging his right knee into the ground trying to make a diving scoop relay to first on Jason Bourgeois' bunt to open the fourth. After striking out Wil Myers, Anthony Gose misread Evan Longoria's liner and it fell for a single, with the runners advancing to second and third on the centre-fielder's bobble.
A sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist and RBI single by Yunel Escobar cut the Blue Jays lead to 3-2, but Happ held things there, while the offence provided some rare add-on runs to put the game out of reach.
"I landed on the kneecap there, it pushed in and I just needed a couple of minutes to let it die down there. It was fine," said Happ. "They got some hits there in the fourth inning but I still feel like I was making pitches. I was just trying to keep that (lead)."
Adam Lind homered to open the sixth and eighth innings, while Brett Lawrie creatively manufactured a run in the sixth when he doubled, took off for third with Alex Torres holding the ball on the mound, and subsequently scored when the left-hander threw it away.
The breathing room was a welcomed relief for a pitching staff that's had little margin for error of late, with six of the club's past eight games decided by two runs or less. Happ used the early cushion provided by Jose Bautista's solo shot in the first, plus Edwin Encarnacion's run-scoring groundout and Lawrie's RBI single in the second, while the bullpen rode the rest.
"I probably haven't pitched the best here (0-1, 12.71 ERA in two starts) and I was looking forward to the opportunity to come and try to change that up a little bit, have a good game, try to keep us in the game, and I was happy I was able to do that," said Happ, who dismissed the thought of any lingering memories of his last time at the Trop. "To me that's over with, that was over with in the first game back."
So forget exorcising demons, this performance was about a continued return to form, and a reminder of the value he brings.