ST. LOUIS -- Wincing through the Pirates getting swept in Milwaukee and noting who they had leading them into the series at Busch Stadium, many Pittsburgh fans wondered, "Why even play the game?"
As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often likes to say, "This is why you play the game." So J.A. Happ, he with the lifetime 1-8 record and 6.79 ERA against the Cardinals, can wave his magic left arm and silence the Redbirds and 44,338 in their house, as he did splendidly Friday for the first seven innings of the Bucs' 9-3 win.
"Three hits … that definitely grabs your attention," Hurdle said, summarizing the scoreless outing by Happ that featured eight strikeouts and no walks. "He's been on a nice roll. A nice shot in the arm."
To put it mildly. The lefty who on July 31 dragged one win in his last 15 games over from the Mariners has started five consecutive Pirates wins, sporting an ERA of 0.60 over that span. On Friday, the Bucs snapped the four-game losing streak between Happ starts. It was Happ's fourth win since Aug. 19 -- matching the four since that day by the other four-fifths of the rotation.
"It's been a good transition," Happ said of leaving the depths of the American League West for a National League contender. "There's definitely some excitement around this team. That gives you some confidence … the atmosphere is lighter, there's more energy. I've tried to feed off the other guys."
While not trying to minimize a typical recovery effort by his pitching coach, Ray Searage, Hurdle reminded all that Happ wasn't exactly pulled out of a hat. Until things went haywire for him, he'd gotten off to a pretty impressive start in Seattle: 3-1 with a 3.70 ERA through his first 10 starts.
"We wouldn't have gotten him if he'd continued that trend," Hurdle said. "That's when trades are made … you see something you like, they had an opportunity to move him, we believed in him. You come to a team in a pennant race, you don't want to be a weak link. You re-focus. You know you're being counted on. He has been -- and he showed up well."
Ultimately, Happ left the Mariners with a record of 4-6 and an ERA of 4.64. With the Bucs, he is 4-1 with an ERA of 1.57, thus he could be a shoo-in for the second half Comeback Player of the Year Award, if such existed.
One year, it actually did informally, and it involved ex-Pirates lefty John Candelaria: He was the 1986 AL Comeback Player of the Year with the Angels -- even though he had been 9-7 with a solid 3.73 ERA in '85. But after a dull first half in 1986, The Candy Man rolled to an 8-2 second half to help take the Angels to the AL West title, so The Sporting News, at that time responsible for the award, gave him '86 comeback laurels.