J.A. Happ making fine progress despite long layoff

J.A. Happ would pitch six strong innings but Toronto would give up a costly run in the ninth and lose 4-3 to the New York Yankees.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Due to the scarcity of Grapefruit League innings for pitchers in competition for jobs with the Toronto Blue Jays and a March 19 rainout, J.A. Happ went more than two weeks without facing big-league hitters. Though he still got his work in against minor-leaguers, that’s from an ideal way to gauge progress.

Underlining that was Aaron Hicks, who pummelled the left-hander’s third pitch Saturday off a palm tree beyond the left-field wall.

“Definitely focused up real quick,” Happ quipped.

He focused up to great effect, too, retiring the next 14 batters he faced while collecting 13 groundball outs over six innings of three-run ball in a 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees. Happ allowed five hits, walked none and struck out two while throwing 86 pitches, looking very sharp before fading a touch in his final frame.

Turns out his progress is just fine.

“The game is crazy, it just shows you about how your stuff plays,” Happ said of recovering from the Hicks homer. “The two pitches I left thigh-high over the plate, one is over the fence, the other is off the wall. That’s why these guys are as good as they are. …

“But we got the pitch count up there, got a lot of up and downs, so I felt good, I felt strong, I felt like I could still go out again even though I was getting a little bit loose with the off-speed.”

At this point of the spring, that isn’t overly concerning, and Happ will have one more pre-season start, Friday in Montreal, to do some additional polishing. His workload will be scaled back in that one to get him strong for the regular season, but any wonder over where he stood was allayed by the way he handled a Yankees lineup that included Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

“He was great,” said manager John Gibbons. “You don’t quite have that edge [pitching in minor-league games] that you have up here, that’s good that he did that today against some guys he’s going to be facing a lot. It revs him up a little more.”

That peace of mind is also important given the looming decisions that must be made with the rest of the starting rotation. The debate between Aaron Sanchez and Gavin Floyd for the fifth spot in the rotation continues, while Marco Estrada’s back felt good Saturday the day after he threw 3.2 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Sanchez is set to start Tuesday against the Detroit Tigers at Lakeland with Estrada getting the Grapefruit League finale Wednesday in Fort Myers versus the Minnesota Twins, and how long the latter lasts in that one may settle the Blue Jays’ path forward.

Estrada should be up in the 70-pitch range for that start, and whether that’s enough to have him ready for the opening series at Tampa Bay is in discussion. The Blue Jays could open with a four-man rotation because they have a couple of off-days in the first two weeks of the season.

“We’ve talked about that,” said Gibbons. “A lot of that will revolve around Marco … whether he needs that extra start maybe to really get it going. … That will probably determine what’s going on.”

Happ, meanwhile, simply needs to keep it going.

The 13 groundball outs – 14 if you count a Beltran flare that dropped in front of David Adams at second base that went 4-3 in the first inning – is unusually high for him, the product of more movement than normal on his two-seamer.

“That was a good sign, especially with our defence, we made some great plays,” said Happ. “When we head up, trusting that we have solid defence is going to be a help. It’s going to be nice for us just to trust to execute those pitches to try to get those groundballs.”

After the Hicks homer, the Yankees didn’t get to him again until the sixth, when Rodriguez capped a 10-pitch duel with an RBI single up the middle. Teixeira followed with a fielder’s choice RBI that would have been a double play if a wild pitch hadn’t advanced the runners.

“That was kind of an example of some of the off-speed stuff getting a little too big,” Happ said of the Rodriguez at-bat. “But I was making some good pitches and he was fouling some pretty good pitches off. That was a battle.”

It was, but Happ and the Blue Jays can both rest easier knowing just where he’s at thanks to his first Grapefruit League outing since March 9.

“I don’t want to take anything away, it’s just a little harder to judge how your stuff plays,” Happ said of pitching in minor-league games. “Consistency is why guys are at the big-league level and guys are at the minor-league level, judgment of the strike zone and things like that. I feel good about throwing strikes down there, but at the same time it’s a little bit harder to get a read on how your stuff is going to play.”

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Notes: Jose Bautista went 0-for-3 in six innings of work after missing a handful of games with stiffness in his neck. Asked how he felt, he turned his head from side-to-side, smiled and said, “better.” … Gibbons watched Edwin Encarnacion (oblique) take batting practice. His take? “Good. He was hitting it hard everywhere.” … Andy Burns ranged far to his right and made a nice stop on a Beltran grounder up the middle to save a run, as he continues to impress. Gibbons praised him, David Adams and Jio Mier for their work this spring, saying the way they’ve performed gives him comfort in the event injuries create a need up the middle. “It bodes well for the organization, I’ll tell you that,” he said. … The Blue Jays met Friday to discuss their roster, although nothing has been finalized yet. As always, whether a player has options or not will come into play, as organizations must balance managing assets versus picking the best players. “As a coaching staff you look at it differently than the front-office staff – we always want the best available from the get-go every day,” said Gibbons. “That’s probably not real smart all the time either. You learn over time that you use so many guys throughout a season, you better hold on to certain guys.”