TORONTO -- The first two months of the season were a bit of a nightmare for Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ. Since then, everything has gone about as well as could be expected.
Happ continued his strong run through the second half by limiting the Royals to one run over 6 2/3 innings on Thursday night. The problem is -- like far too many nights this season -- it still wasn't enough to avoid a 1-0 loss as the Blue Jays' bats managed only two hits.
Last year's career-high 20-win season was always going to be difficult for Happ to match. He was borderline flawless in 2016, posting a personal-best 3.18 ERA. Some regression was in order, but apparently not as much as people thought considering his performance after returning from an elbow injury in late May.
"I think he's throwing the ball just like he did last year," manager John Gibbons said. "There was a stretch where he might have been missing his two-seamer a little bit but I think he's starting to get a feel for that a little bit more. Other than that he has been the same guy. He had to get built up when he came back, but since then he's having a nice season."
Happ hit the disabled list on April 17 after making three starts and then feeling some discomfort in his left elbow. He missed the next six weeks, but he returned on May 30 and has since posted a 3.53 ERA over 122 1/3 innings. Happ has been even better of late with one earned run or fewer allowed over four of his last five appearances.
Against the Royals, Happ even incorporated the use of some rare ground-ball double plays. Last year, Happ picked up 21 of those, but he entered Thursday's start with three, which ranked last in the Major Leagues among qualified starting pitchers. In the series finale, Happ induced one off the bat of Mike Moustakas in the fourth and another off Salvador Perez in the sixth.
At age 34 and in his 11th year in the big leagues, Happ isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, but he's still tinkering with his repertoire. That involves fine tuning the two-seamer in an effort to lower his pitch count and get deep into games. It's been working of late as he pitched into the seventh inning for the second consecutive start after only getting there once before since the start of July.
"It was a two-seamer and a curveball tonight that got those two big double-play balls," Happ said. "I felt like I got more of those last year, but they came in big spots tonight. So those were big pitches that we were able to turn that got us out of a few jams tonight.
"I feel good with it. I feel like, for me, it's about mixing between the two- and four-seamer. I think that makes the two-seamer more effective when I do throw it. We felt good the way we were mixing it up today."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his pod,cast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.