Blue Jays Notebook: Opening-day starter Happ excited for ‘special day’

Marco Estrada gave up two runs over five innings and Russell Martin avoided a potential injury as the Blue Jays and Phillies were rained out after seven innings with Toronto down 2-0.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Even in this era of objectivism in baseball where the cold truths of data often trump the romanticism embedded in the game’s lore, opening day still carries a special mystique.

Really, the season’s first day shouldn’t mean more than any other day, yet there’s an enduring symbolism to being on the roster when the bell rings, even though player moves of some sort are usually imminent, and especially to getting the ball for starting pitchers.

Rationally, J.A. Happ understands all of that, yet as the 35-year-old heads into his 10th full season in the big leagues, the left-hander was clearly honoured to be given his first opening-day assignment when the Toronto Blue Jays host the New York Yankees on March 29.

“I think it’s just kicking off the season,” he replied Tuesday morning when asked why it was meaningful. “It really doesn’t [matter]. We could have gone with anyone and been super comfortable with that decision but at the same time it feels good to have a chance to do that, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Happ was a fairly obvious choice for the Blue Jays once Marcus Stroman had to be pushed back to due to shoulder inflammation. Despite missing some time with an elbow injury, Happ still pitched to a 3.53 ERA with a 3.76 FIP in 145.1 innings over 25 starts, providing the type of stability a rotation constantly in flux due to injuries needed.

He’ll be followed in the rotation by a resurgent Aaron Sanchez, back to form this spring after blister and finger troubles last year submarined his season, Marco Estrada, Stroman and Jaime Garcia. If the Blue Jays are to rebound in 2018 and find their way back into the post-season, they’ll likely be needed to do the heavy lifting.

Last year, they used 14 different starters, with only Stroman and Estrada going wire-to-wire.

“We like their ability,” manager John Gibbons said of this year’s staff. “It’s a seasoned group. You’ve got a couple lefties in there. Some different looks, too. You’ve got a couple power guys. Three of them are ground-ballers, with Sanchie, Stro and Garcia … and they’re all capable of strikeouts, too. It’s a good strong group.”

Gibbons praised Happ as a pitcher who reinvented himself over the course of his career, transitioning from an over-the-top power pitcher to one that dropped his arm slot a touch to generate better command and get more groundballs.

For that reason he was glad to reward Happ with the start next week, describing the opening-day nod as an honour that ever pitcher in the big leagues would love.

“It’s one game, but there’s just something – the focus, and everything like that,” he said. “You’ve got to be good to get those nods.”

There’s a symbolism, too, about being the guy the team trusts with the ball when the season begins.

“A little bit,” admitted Happ. “It depends on how you’re looking at it and who you’re asking, but for me, now that I have the ball, it’s just exciting to kick things off. I don’t really know how to put it into words but at the same time I don’t want to overanalyze it. It is one of 162. But it’s going to be a special day.”

Here are some other Blue Jays talking points from Tuesday:

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Russell Martin completed a rare double during a rain-shortened 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater when his highlight-reel catch also turned into a blooper.

In the second inning, the Blue Jays catcher chased down Odubel Herrera’s soft foul popper by the Phillies dugout and made a lunging grab for the out, but as he did so he fell into one of the protective mesh screens on the field coaching staffs sit behind during spring training games. As he tried to get up, he got entangled in the mesh like a fish in a trawler’s line, tumbling back down to the ground again.

“That went from top-10 to not top-10 quick. Something new every day,” Martin quipped. “My equipment and my cleats got caught in the net. I made the play and then I tried to get away from the net as I was falling down into it. I had already destroyed the net, or the frame that was holding the net together and my part of my gear was caught, so I fell back down trying to get away and a post hit me in the head.

“After the post hit me in the head, I was like, ‘I’m just going to lay here for a while.’ It didn’t hurt because it was a hollow post, it wasn’t heavy. It was just funny. I heard people laughing.”

• Among those laughing was Blue Jays starter Estrada, who has seen something similar happen before.

“That’s a great play, I didn’t even think he had a shot at it, especially with the screen being there, but that’s how good of a catcher he is. He just went after it and made the play,” said Estrada. “You’ve seen him jump into the stands, into the dugout. He’s a gamer, he just goes after the ball wherever it’s at.”

Estrada allowed two runs on four hits and a walk in five innings of work, striking out five, accomplishing what he wanted to on a day his command was off.

“Pitch count, that’s basically it,” he said of his prime takeaway from the outing. “I was a little wild today but I still only ended up walking one guy [Jesmuel Valentin] and it cost me. Next guy [Pedro Florimon] hits a triple, guy scores, weak ground ball [by Collin Cowgill], the guy who hit the triple scores. Walks always hurt, but I felt good out there, I got 86 pitches in, just working on that stamina. I think I’m ready to go now.”

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• Estrada has one start left this spring and he’ll likely scale back his workload in that one, seeking to fine-tune his repertoire more than anything else.

“I’m really happy with how my changeup is coming out. I’ve been working on it a lot, it’s coming out really good,” he said. “I like the way my curveball is coming out, I wish we would have thrown a couple more cutters, but I need my fastball command to get a tad better. It was a little off today but it’s been great all spring so it’s one of those days, I think.”

• The set-up of the Blue Jays’ rotation may mean that Joe Biagini may very well open the season in the rotation at triple-A Buffalo.

While there’s a case to be made that the right-hander could be an important weapon in the big-league bullpen, the club’s starting depth, which already wasn’t especially deep, took another hit last week when lefty prospect Thomas Pannone was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a banned substance.

Keeping Biagini as starter No. 6 on the depth chart, ahead of Ryan Borucki, makes some sense under that circumstance. Gibbons didn’t commit one way or the other on the Blue Jays’ plans just yet.

“We don’t know what the roster’s going to look like a week from now anyway,” he said. “It’s always a possibility. I did talk to him too. But Joe’s going to be a big part of this team for a lot of years. We’ve still got a week left. Knock on wood nothing happens, but something could happen, too.”

• Randal Grichuk impressed during a batting practice session on the field Tuesday and barring a surprise is on track to play Wednesday when the Phillies visit Dunedin Stadium. He hasn’t seen any Grapefruit League action since March 9 because of a ribcage issue.

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