Veteran left-hander gives up four hits over six innings of one-run ball vs. Bucs
By Keegan Matheson
TORONTO -- J.A. Happ is back in peak form for the Blue Jays, and with the team's pitching depth being tested, his ability to push through the final inning of his starts is increasingly valuable.
Happ worked into the sixth inning with ease in Sunday's 7-1 win over the Pirates, but found trouble when he issued back-to-back walks to Jose Osuna and Sean Rodriguez with two outs. Manager John Gibbons trusted his veteran to escape the inning, however, and Happ saved his best pitch for last. With two strikes on Jordy Mercer, Happ ripped off a 95.4-mph fastball on his 104th pitch -- and hardest pitch -- of the game.
"He basically lives with the fastball," Gibbons said after the win, "which is very hard to do. When he's getting some good hitters out, that'll tell you he's locating it where he wants and mixing it up, in and out."
Since returning from the disabled list on June 5, Happ has pitched at least five innings in 12 of 13 starts and six or more innings in nine of those. Short outings have hurt the Blue Jays all season and left the bullpen overworked at times, but Happ's start follows right behind impressive games from Chris Rowley, Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada.
"If you look at successful teams, it usually starts with the starting pitching," Happ said. "If they're successful, usually a team has a good chance. I like the way we've been throwing the ball lately and we're going to do more of that in the next month and a half here, but lately it's been good."
The most recent turnaround for Happ has been his last three starts, including recent wins against the Yankees and White Sox. Happ has allowed just one earned run in each of the three outings and struck out 23 batters in 18 2/3 innings. If the Blue Jays hope to leapfrog the seven teams above them in the crowded American League Wild Card race, they'll need plenty more of that.
Sunday's newest variable for Happ was working with catcher Raffy Lopez for the first time. In fact, this string of three starts has come with three different starting catchers.
Lopez and Happ varied their pace and required a handful of quick mound visits, but Happ never strayed from the zone for too long. The left-hander said after the game that he and Lopez talked a lot between innings to adapt their plan, which included some breaking pitches in big spots.
"We were able to hit on some of them and start having some success," Happ said. "Usually, in most games we go with what works and some of the off-speed [stuff] was working for me today so we tried to capitalize on that."
Keegan Matheson is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.