Happ turns in rare clunker as departure from Blue Jays looms

Nicholas Castellanos hit a grand slam to help the Detroit Tigers hammer the Toronto Blue Jays.

TORONTO – As word of John Tavares’ singing with the Toronto Maple Leafs made its way through a crowd of 37,745 at Rogers Centre on Sunday afternoon, the contrast with the fortunes of the Toronto Blue Jays and J.A. Happ on the mound could not have been more stark.

While the local hockey club made perhaps the most significant free-agent add in the city’s recent sports history in a push for the Stanley Cup, its baseball counterpart is selling off the classy and trusted left-hander, among other assets, to reset its window for a shot at the World Series.

So, Happy Canada Day, ball fans!

Perhaps because of the imminent parting that looms between Happ and the Blue Jays, the crowd gave the 35-year-old a loud ovation as he walked off the mound with two outs in the sixth inning, even though he allowed seven runs in an outing that unravelled on two pitches.

The rare clunker in a 9-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers – his first since allowing seven runs over 3.1 innings May 10 against Seattle in a similar death-by-papercut outing – ended a run of eight starts in which he allowed more than three runs only twice.

“I did notice (the ovation) and I certainly appreciate that,” said Happ. “Maybe it was appreciation for how the season has gone so far or whatever you might take from it, that’s kind of what I took from it. That’s a nice feeling, certainly nicer than getting potentially getting booed, not that I would expect that at all, either. It’s always nice to hear fans cheering, regardless of how the outing went.”

Happ looked set to extend his run early on, with four shutout innings out of the gate.

But in the fifth, a couple of bloops, a walk, a rare bases-loaded bunt single that Leonys Martin beat out as his hamstring cramped (“I think it gives you an indication of how he probably felt about that at-bat,” said Happ) and a Nicholas Castellanos grand slam off the top of the wall in right field turned a 1-0 lead into a 5-1 deficit.

The Tigers bled Happ for two more runs in the sixth on a Jose Iglesias bloop that found the fertile ground between shortstop Aledmys Diaz and left-fielder Teoscar Hernandez and ended Happ’s day, triggering the ovation.

“It can be,” Happ replied when asked if it can be hard to reset when he executes pitches and still ends up in a jam. “You get in that situation and it starts to feel like you maybe try to do too much because the ball seems to be finding a hole, finding grass or whatever it might be. I felt like I was focused (in the fifth).

“Losing JaCoby Jones in the ninth hole didn’t set me up great after the first two bloop hits or whatever you want to call them. Then the bunt and the fly ball off the top of the wall did the damage.”

Which is why his pitching line – seven runs on 10 hits and a walk in 5.2 innings – is far less indicative of how he pitched.

“For me, I look at was I in the middle of the plate and did they hit the ball hard, and I really can’t say yes to either of those, or at least not often,” he said. “I just didn’t close out that fifth inning, got myself in a jam, they got a big hit and that was tough.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Happ is, of course, no stranger to being dealt around this time of the season, getting traded by Philadelphia to Houston as part of a deal for Roy Oswalt on July 29, 2010 (a swap that led to the Blue Jays’ acquisition of Anthony Gose), by the Astros to the Blue Jays in a 10-player exchange July 20, 2012, and a third time by Seattle to Pittsburgh on July 31, 2015.

This time is different since Happ is arguably the best starting pitcher available ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and the Blue Jays will be looking to leverage him for as much prospect capital as possible.

Intriguingly, his next start will come Saturday against the New York Yankees, who had two different scouts take in his outings in Anaheim and Houston during the Blue Jays’ last road trip.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters last week that he wants to upgrade the rotation and given his experience in the AL East meatgrinder, Happ is a logical target. The Yankees also have an interesting trade chip in Clint Frazier, who like Hernandez last year in Houston, has his path to playing time in the big-league outfield blocked and also happens to be familiar to Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins from their days in Cleveland.

“I never said he’s off the table. I’d like to keep him,” Cashman said of Frazier to New York media. “I have a lot of high-end talent that has taken a long time to acquire or cultivate. But it’s going to cost something to get stuff. We’ll play that game over the next month and see where it takes us.”

The Blue Jays will be playing that game, too, and if Happ is going to be the guy the Yankees want, will they really want to face him next week, and perhaps take a game from them in the standings?

Already the Blue Jays have sent Steve Pearce to the rival Boston Red Sox, so they’re ready to do business. Losing Happ will hurt far more, especially because he can be a real difference-maker for whoever gets him.

“His stuff was fine,” manager John Gibbons said of Happ’s performance. “Circumstances got him today.”

Either way, Happ’s departure looms and the Blue Jays lost 9-1 on the day the Maple Leafs signed No. 91.

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