For all he’s been through during the past couple of seasons, J.A. Happ is remarkably poised. Since joining the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, the ex-Phillie has suffered a litany of injuries and freak occurrences that would leave most an emotional wreck.
Happ ended the 2012 season on the disabled list with a broken foot. He was just beginning to find his groove in 2013 when he was hit by a line drive in the head and suffered a fractured skull. Amazingly, Happ missed just three months with the fractured skull and made his final 11 starts of the season.
Still, after a broken foot and surviving an injury that could have killed him, Happ had the indignity of opening the 2014 season on the disabled list with a back injury. Worse, when he returned midway through April, it was as a reliever.
Happ didn’t like that one bit.
“That’s an understatement,” Happ said.
But in recounting his travails over the past couple of seasons following his first start of the season at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night (see story), the former Phillies prospect and runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award in 2009 was as cool and collected as ever.
He can be dealt away to the Astros and the Blue Jays rather unceremoniously, but Happ isn’t going to allow his emotions boil over.
That’s just not his style.
“That’s just part of being a professional,” Happ said. “From the outside looking in, I’m glad [people say I’m composed]. There have been occasions where that hasn’t been the case and my feelings have been expressed, but it’s always been behind closed doors. It does no good to pout publically or throw a fit. It’s just part of going out and trying to be a professional.”
Happ wasn’t as sharp or as efficient as he could have been on Monday night, but then again that’s never been his forte. Call it a workmanlike outing for a guy working his way back into the rotation. Indeed, Happ will give up hits and walks, but he’ll get creative when looking for outs. He certainly was savvy about getting them against his old teammates on Monday night.
In the first inning of Monday’s game Happ gave up a leadoff single to Ben Revere, but then picked him off for the second out of the inning.
The next inning Marlon Byrd led off with a single and Carlos Ruiz walked with one out. A two-out walk to Jayson Nix loaded the bases, but Happ wiggled out of it by getting Kyle Kendrick to ground out.
Only once did Happ retire the Phillies in order, which Blue Jays manager John Gibbons used as a cue to get him out of there after five innings. Three hits, four walks and eight outs on balls that didn’t leave the infield for the lefty.
That’s just the way Happ does it.
“I certainly didn’t try to walk four guys — I just tried to let it go,” Happ said. “I wasn’t the most comfortable out there, but it happens, so when it does, you try to get a groundball.”
You know, ho-hum.
“He stepped up,” Gibbons said. “Early he was a little rusty, but he kicked it in and did a good job and left with a lead.”
Gibbons said Happ has been tinkering with his delivery, extending his arm angle more over the top “like a classic lefty.” That has allowed Happ to get the ball down in the zone more so that when he walks guys, he can coax more groundballs. He didn’t get any double plays against the Phillies, but he got six groundball outs and two popups in five innings.
“He’s tough,” Gibbons said. “He’s really tough. He doesn’t back down from anything. He competes and he’s strong.”
Afterwards, Happ talked about how good it was to return to Philadelphia, where he was an important piece to the team during the September stretch drive and was on the postseason roster in 2008. He then helped pitch the team back to the World Series in 2009 with a 12-4 record and 2.93 ERA in 35 games. He probably should have been voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year in ’09, too, but was narrowly second behind the Marlins' Chris Coghlan.
In 2010, after spending two months on the disabled list with a strained arm, Happ was dealt to Houston with prospects Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar for Roy Oswalt.
Just like that, Happ was gone from the team that drafted him out of Northwestern in 2004. Gone after working his way through Batavia, Clearwater, Reading, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Ottawa and Lehigh Valley to an Astros team that was rebuilding.
Gone from a team that was two wins away from going back to the World Series for a third year in a row.
“I was a little surprised when I got traded. That first trade is a little more emotional,” Happ said. “I’m not the right guy to ask for why it happened. But for whatever reason, it happened.”
That’s ancient history now. Happ has been through a lot since he was traded by the Phillies. The Astros sent him to Toronto in a deadline deal in 2012, and now he’s pitching with the hope of having a club option picked up for 2015.
Actually, Happ doesn’t look at it as pitching for a contract. To look at it that way could break that cool façade he keeps.
“I don’t view it that way. Some people might,” Happ said. “I’ve had some weird things happen to me. I broke my foot, I got hit in the head, I had a knee injury and I haven’t really had an extended full year here. I’d like to start now and see where it goes.”
As luck would have it, the road began in Philadelphia for Happ ... again.
“I do like coming back here,” he said. "Some of my favorite baseball memories are from here.”