DUNEDIN, Fla. — The goal for J.A. Happ’s third spring start Wednesday was to get into the fourth inning and throw somewhere around 55 pitches. When he finished the third inning having thrown 51, the Blue Jays had a decision to make.
Happ spoke to Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker after the inning and voiced his strong desire to go back out for the fourth, both in order to throw his remaining pitches in-game and to reacclimatize himself to the routine of ramping his engine up and down between innings. Walker agreed, but promised Happ only one batter.
Any pitcher who’s been in that position can tell you what happened next was all but guaranteed by the baseball gods. Toronto’s offence sent six batters to the plate in the bottom of the third, with the first four all working very long counts, as Happ was forced to sit through an exceptionally long half-inning waiting to return to the mound.
“Yeah, seems like that stuff happens when you’re kind of on the fence about it,” Happ said after allowing two hits and a run over his three-plus innings in a 13-4 Blue Jays win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “But it’s usually a good thing. It means our offence is working well. So, you’ll usually take those.”
Getting used to a starter’s routine wasn’t the only benefit for Happ, who walked that first hitter of the fourth and finished at 57 pitches (34 strikes). He took the outing to work on some of his secondary pitches, asking his catcher, Luke Maile, to lean on back-door cutters in his third inning of work, as Happ looked to sharpen his full repertoire ahead of the regular season.
“And I did throw some good change-ups and a few curveballs in there,” Happ said. “That’s the benefit, too. The more pitches you throw, you’re able to work on those things more.
“I’m close — getting close. I lost a couple guys on a couple glove-side fastballs. Which usually isn’t as big of an issue for me. We’ll get that corrected. But as far as the other stuff, I feel pretty good about it.”
Of course, fastballs will always be Happ’s primary weapon. He used either a four-seamer or two-seamer more than 70 per cent of the time in 2017. But his secondary pitches can’t be forgotten, as Happ looks to build on his last two seasons, in which he posted a 3.33 ERA over 57 starts. It’s been a particular point of emphasis during his side sessions this spring.
“He’s a workhorse. And those side sessions are productive. He’s obviously trying to refine his pitches and be more consistent with his off-speed and secondary stuff,” Walker said. “His fastball’s there. He pitches up in the zone as well as anybody, sinks the ball away. But his secondary stuff, he’s always working on it — trying to be a little bit more consistent with his slider. And the change-up, as well. If those pitches are working for him, it can be a tough day for the opponent.”
Travis keeps it rolling
There was no shortage of offence for the Blue Jays Wednesday, as the club hit five home runs on a windy day at Dunedin Stadium. One of those homers came off the bat of Devon Travis, who is now 5-for-15 this spring with a pair of walks.
But what was perhaps more impressive for the Blue Jays was the way Travis ran from first base to third on a Randal Grichuk single in the first inning. He was tested several times defensively at second base, as well, and looked every bit like himself.
You know by now how important this spring is for Travis, who has missed large swaths of his first three major-league seasons due to injury. He’s yet to play on back-to-back days, as the Blue Jays ease him in during his latest return to action. But so far, so good.
“You can see he’s kind of getting into a rhythm. It was really good to see him go first to third. Those are some of the tests that you’d like to see in a game,” said Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale. “Some of the little things coming off the injury, where he’s not hesitating going first to third, going back on fly balls, activity, action defensively. He’s showing that. So, we’re going to keep our eye on him and keep progressing him. And he’s going to be a big key for our success this season.”
Marcus Stroman is scheduled to play catch Thursday for the first time since being shut down last week with right shoulder inflammation. The Blue Jays will assess his shoulder following the session before deciding how to progress.
At this point, it’s highly unlikely Stroman will be a part of Toronto’s rotation to begin the season. That’s his goal, and he’s surpassed rehab timelines in the past. But there are only three weeks remaining until opening day, and the Blue Jays will surely emphasize caution once Stroman gets back on the mound and begins a throwing program.
“He’s feeling good, he’s chomping at the bit to get going,” Walker said. “He’ll get out there and play catch and go from there.”
Martin mans third
Russell Martin drew the start at third base Wednesday, partly so he could get more plate appearances, partly because the Blue Jays were thin on a split-squad day, and partly because it’s something you may see him do during the regular season.
The Blue Jays got creative with Martin’s deployment in 2017, starting him at third on nine occasions. Martin played 77 innings at the hot corner, converting all 21 of his fielding opportunities. Martin also played a couple innings at second base for the Blue Jays in 2016, and is always available to fill in around the infield if the Blue Jays are in a jam.
“He’s capable of going over there, for sure,” Hale said. “Whether it’s second base, third base — he’s been an option for us late in games.”