BOSTON — J.A. Happ did the same thing with each new baseball the umpire threw him. He took off his glove, held it between his right elbow and torso, and rubbed the ball all over with both palms. He kicked at the dirt beneath him, spinning the ball in his left hand, before putting his glove back on and taking his position on the third base side of the rubber, looking in for a sign.
Pitchers are such creatures of habit. Such slaves to their process. And Happ, he’s no different. Even as Mookie Betts was at the plate, fouling off pitch after pitch after pitch. Even as Happ’s pitch count during an ultramarathon fourth inning climbed to 35, then 40, then 45. Even as the Fenway Park crowd began stirring, began cheering, began getting out of their seats to rain deafening roars all around him. Even as the one Betts didn’t foul off soared above the Green Monster, over Lansdowne Street, and into the night. Happ never broke his routine.
"Oh, gosh," Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said after the game. "I don’t know if I can describe it."
Let’s take a step back. Through three innings Thursday night at Fenway, Happ was cruising right along. He’d allowed only two hits. He’d struck out five. The pitches coming out of his hand felt crisp, sharp. His delivery and mechanics felt as good as they had in a while. He was pretty sure he was going to go deep into the ballgame. His catcher agreed.
"He had really, really good stuff," said Russell Martin. "He had that good fastball going, he was locating his change-up. He was making quality pitches."
And he had no idea his next inning would play out like a Shakespearean tragedy.
Starting the fourth with a 2-0 lead, Happ struck out his first batter, allowed a single to the next, and then got the third to bounce a double-play grounder to short. But Devon Travis, who received the feed at second from Lourdes Gurriel Jr., not only took his foot off the bag too early, but didn’t get enough on his throw to first. Both runners were safe. A frustrating moment. But onto the next one.
That was Eudardo Nunez, and he hit a nubber up the third base line that left his bat at such an unremarkable rate of speed that PitchFX didn’t even register its exit velocity. Happ scrambled to gun him out at first, but Nunez was a step too fast, which loaded the bases. Happ thought he could have been more aggressive pursuing the ball. Maybe if he was a little quicker, he could’ve got Nunez at first. You can always look back and find maybes.
Next was Sandy Leon, who got jammed and hit a ball towards shortstop at 65-mph. Gurriel had only one play, a fairly remarkable one at that, flipping the ball to third with his glove for a force out, the second of the inning as a run crossed the plate. Even when Happ walked the next batter to re-load the bases, he was still only an out away from escaping a very hard-luck inning with only one run having scored.
But then, Betts. One of the best hitters in baseball, having accumulated 5.7 WAR and an otherworldly batting line of .350/.439/.675 coming into the night, Betts is as dangerous a hitter as he is infuriating. And, after swinging out of his cleats at the third pitch Happ threw, nearly falling over as he fell behind 1-2, Betts promptly went to work demonstrating why.
He fouled one off, then another, and another — reaching six consecutively as Betts threw his bat at everything Happ offered, spoiling pitch after pitch. At one point, Betts flared one towards first base foul territory, where Justin Smoak raced after it. The Blue Jays first baseman got just enough glove on the ball for it to bounce up and against his momentum, falling to the dirt just beyond his bare hand’s grasp. Happ took a new ball, rubbing it up with both palms.
"We’re mixing change-ups down-and-away, fastballs up-and-in," Martin said. "Betts, he’s got such a quick bat — I don’t know if there’s a recipe to getting him out. You’ve just got to make quality pitches. And even when you do, he sometimes fouls them off. And that’s exactly what he did. He fought off every single tough pitch."
Through it all, the only sign of Happ’s frustration was his velocity. He threw one of his two-strike pitches at 96-mph. Betts fouled it off. Then he threw another. Betts fouled that off, too. Happ’s fastball averages only 93. Betts fouled off seven in all before working the count full. The crowd, which began the at-bat in a seated murmur, was now up and thundering. Something had to give.
With his 13th pitch of the at-bat, his 46th of the inning, and his 98th of the night, Happ reached back for a 95-mph fastball and spotted it just below the strike zone. He was trying to go down-and-away. He pulled it just a bit back towards the middle of the plate. He never did watch it leave the yard.
"Betts is a good low-ball hitter. And he definitely has that hot zone down-and-in — he can elevate that ball. And he took an unbelievable swing," Martin said. "It was just an incredible battle. That was as good of a battle as I’ve seen this year from an opposing hitter. I mean, what can you do?"
And what can you say? Happ entered the night looking to rid the taste of consecutive rough outings from his mouth. He wanted to prove he was still the guy who put up a 3.62 ERA over his first 16 starts of the season, and not the one who allowed 13 runs over his last two. He wanted to show that the out-of-his-control adversity he faced in those outings — soft singles, borderline pitches that didn’t go his way, spotty defence behind him — was merely the bad luck it appeared to be. He had the stuff he needed to do it. And he ended up suffering an even worse fate.
"I don’t know if they got a ball out of the infield before that homer," Happ said. "That’s tough to take."
The Blue Jays eventually lost the game, 6-4 — a result that, in the grand scheme of Toronto’s season, doesn’t matter much. What mattered Thursday was another long night of misfortune for Happ, who deserves much better than the miserable results he’s experienced since the month began. It must be so agonizing, so tormenting to be going through a stretch like this at a time like this. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at him.
As Betts’ grand slam sailed over the Green Monster, disappearing beyond Lansdowne Street and into the night, the umpire threw Happ a new ball. Betts wasn’t running the first base line so much as he was jumping it. The Fenway crowd was delirious. Gibbons was coming out of his dugout. And there Happ stood on the mound, kicking at the dirt beneath him, doing the same thing he always does — glove between his elbow and torso, both palms rubbing the ball.