Five-run first, stellar Happ lift Blue Jays to win
By Adam Berry and Keegan Matheson
TORONTO -- J.A. Happ turned his career around with the Pirates, putting together a dominant second half in 2015 that led to his current three-year deal with the Blue Jays. On Sunday afternoon, he turned the tables and shut down the Bucs for six innings. The Jays gave Happ all the run support he needed in the first inning and cruised to a 7-1 win at Rogers Centre.
The Blue Jays forced Pirates starter Chad Kuhl to throw 40 pitches in a five-run first inning. Josh Donaldson crushed a two-run homer, then Ryan Goins doubled in two runs and scored on a double steal. Kuhl recovered from the rough start and completed five innings, allowing only one hit -- a ground ball to shortstop Jordy Mercer -- and three walks over his final four innings. Darwin Barney and Justin Smoak homered off reliever Wade LeBlanc to pad Toronto's lead.
"They were on it from pitch one," Kuhl said. "Donaldson put a really good swing on that one. If he rolls that over, we're talking about a different ballgame. He did his damage. Really good first for those guys. Obviously they were ready from the get-go."
Happ struck out eight and allowed four hits, all singles and just one of them after the Pirates scored their only run of the game in the first inning. The veteran left-hander has quietly been one of baseball's most effective starters since Pittsburgh acquired him before the non-waiver Trade Deadline in '15, posting a 3.07 ERA in 60 starts over that span.
"He hides the ball. He knows how to pitch," Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli said. "He's a veteran. It was the same thing when I was catching him. He did well."
Sunday was Happ's fourth straight quality outing, and he owns a 2.19 ERA with more strikeouts (28) than hits allowed (19) during that stretch.
"Happ was really good," said manager John Gibbons. "I thought he was a little bit off early in the game and then he found that groove and he was sticking it much better. He's been on a nice roll since he came back from the elbow issues."
After climbing back to .500 with a win on Friday, the Pirates have lost two games in a row. Pittsburgh fell four games behind the National League Central-leading Cubs. The Bucs will play 34 of their next 38 games within their division, with the other four coming against the Dodgers, who own baseball's best record.
"We know how much time's left. We're nearing the middle of August, a month and a half [to go], and we have a lot of division games left," Kuhl said. "We're going to take what we take from this and move forward."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Bring the Rain: With Jose Bautista on first base in the first inning, Donaldson saw a pair of fastballs from Kuhl. He took the first one for a strike and clobbered the second one into the second deck in left field for a two-run homer. According to Statcast™, Donaldson's 16th home run of the season traveled a projected 452 feet with an exit velocity of 110.7 mph -- his longest homer of the season and the second-hardest one he's hit all year.
"We've been known to do that, especially in the good times," Gibbons said. "When we scored early it got us started with a little breathing room. That always helps. Josh is on a nice little roll. He's really been swinging it well lately and Jose's been getting on base and getting some key things done."
Double trouble: The Jays powered their way to an early lead, but they used some speed and deception to punctuate a five-run first. With Goins on third and Raffy Lopez at the plate, Kevin Pillar stole second base. That drew a throw from Cervelli to Mercer and prompted Goins to take off from third base. Mercer couldn't reconnect with Cervelli in time, and Toronto's strategy worked perfectly as Goins stole home.
"Sometimes with our [infield] shifting, that secondary lead they can get when our third baseman's too far off can get exposed," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It could be a combination of that and just a very well-executed play that we didn't freshen up enough."
"I was just up in the zone. Couldn't really get in a rhythm. Left a fastball out over the plate to Donaldson and a changeup up to Goins. They hit 'em. They did a good job. Couldn't really get in a rhythm, left some balls up. … You try your best to find that rhythm. It just took a little bit longer today."-- Kuhl, on his rough first inning
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Sunday's win was the 700th of Gibbons' managerial career. He now owns a record of 700-675, and trails only Cito Gaston (894) for the most wins in franchise history.
David Freese committed two errors in a game for the first time since July 8, 2016, and for the fifth time in his career.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: After an off-day in Milwaukee on Monday, the Pirates will begin a two-game series against the Brewers on Tuesday night at Miller Park at 7:40 p.m. ET. Right-hander Ivan Nova, who has a 6.67 ERA since the All-Star break, is scheduled to start for the Bucs as they face new Brewer/former Pirate Neil Walker. Andrew McCutchen will likely return to center field after serving as the designated hitter on Sunday.
Blue Jays: Right-hander Nick Tepesch (0-2, 9.00 ERA) will open Monday's four-game series against the Rays at 7:07 p.m. ET in Toronto. In his first start for the Blue Jays on Aug. 9 against the Yankees, he allowed five runs on eight hits -- including three homers -- over 4 1/3 innings of work.