TORONTO — A couple Saturdays ago, when JA Happ took the mound on a Dunedin, Fla. backfield at 10:00 a.m. to face live hitters for the first time in a month, he didn’t quite find the feeling he was looking for.
“No matter how amped up you try to get yourself, the adrenaline just isn’t quite there like it would be when you hear the crowd, and you’re facing MLB hitters, and you’re on that mound,” Happ said in the Blue Jays dugout Monday, motioning out to the Rogers Centre mound. “I gave my best intensity I could in both my starts. But there’s just nothing like getting back out there on a big league mound and feeling that.”
Come Tuesday night, Happ’s going to feel it, as he rejoins the Blue Jays rotation and makes his first start since April 16. On that day he lasted just 4.1 innings and 67 pitches into his third 2017 start, leaving the game with tightness in his left elbow. Although an MRI didn’t reveal any ligament damage, it did show quite a bit of inflammation, which Happ has spent the last 40 or so days allowing to subside.
Now, with two rehab outings behind him and his arm feeling normal again, he’s ready to pick up where he left off.
“When it happened initially, you never know how long these things are going to take,” Happ said. “But I knew it was serious enough that I needed to stop at that point. … It just needed to calm down. And it’s been feeling good the last couple of times out.”
Happ expects to throw around 75 pitches Tuesday, as he continues to build back up to a full starter’s workload. He threw 48 in his first rehab outing at extended spring training and 56 in his second with the Dunedin Blue Jays on Thursday.
Meanwhile, when he wasn’t rehabbing, Happ spent his time at the Blue Jays’ Dunedin complex lifting weights and trying to maintain his arm strength.
“We did treatment, we did exercises, I focused a lot on my shoulder—tried to strengthen that while I was down. I feel pretty good coming back,” Happ said. “I’m ready to go with everything.”
Happ began throwing without pain about three weeks ago, and has been using all of his pitches in his rehab outings. Reports from Dunedin had the left-hander’s fastball sitting at 89-90 mph and touching 92. Happ’s fastball has averaged 92-93 mph over the last several seasons and you can be sure the Blue Jays will be paying close attention to the radar gun when he takes the mound Tuesday night.
The biggest hurdle for the 34-year-old in that outing will likely be getting re-accustomed to MLB game speed and intensity, something he hasn’t faced in a month and a half.
“I tried to push it a little further each time with my bullpens. And then going out there those two outings, I’ve really tried to give it all the intensity I could in those situations to try to mimic as best I can,” Happ said. “But it’s almost impossible to do that and make it seem like back here with the crowd atmosphere at this level and everything. But I did what I could to try to give the full effort and intensity and try to see how I recover from that in the following days. And the recovery’s been pretty good. So, I felt like if they were ready for me I was ready to come back and compete.”
Fellow rehabbing Blue Jays starter Francisco Liriano may soon be joining Happ in the big league rotation after throwing a strong rehab outing for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons Sunday night. The left-hander threw 72 pitches over 4.1 innings, allowing three hits, three runs and two walks while striking out seven.
Liriano’s next rotation turn would come Friday, when the Blue Jays play their second game of a four-game series with the New York Yankees. While the Blue Jays have yet to announce their plans, it’s possible Liriano could make that start and bump back Joe Biagini and Marcus Stroman, two starters manager John Gibbons says could use the extra day of rest. Liriano could also potentially start Saturday with Biagini taking his normal turn Friday night.
“We’ve got some flexibility. I think we’re in good shape, regardless,” Gibbons said. “If we want to give somebody an extra day, we could do that. All indications are [Liriano] will pitch for us. We haven’t made it definite yet. But I don’t see why not.”
Meanwhile, Steve Pearce is likely still a month away from returning from a right calf injury. He’s rehabbing in Dunedin and on a similar recovery plan to the one Josh Donaldson followed when he injured his calf. Donaldson was out for about a month and a half. So far, Pearce has missed two weeks.