J.A. Happ was in trouble. He had three bad 2019 starts in three tries on his record and three runs on the board in two innings of start No. 4 Wednesday night.
To make it worse, his fastball — not just his best pitch, but the one he throws more frequently than just about anyone else in the sport — continued to have a piñata quality about it. The Yankees were down 3-0. The Stadium crowd was booing. Questions again were emerging whether the Yankees did right to bring Happ back for two years at $34 million rather than reach deep into the coffers to purchase Patrick Corbin.
Happ got from that despair to be the under-the-radar MVP of what became an enthralling 5-3 victory over the Red Sox. Happ did not win this game, but he did much to help the Yankees not lose. The veteran lefty achieved this by essentially reinventing himself as the game went along, all but abandoning his signature fastball and persevering into the seventh inning while keeping the Yankees close.
“First and foremost, that is a professional,” Happ’s catcher, Austin Romine, said.
There was much for the Yankees to feel good about from this two-game sweep of the Red Sox. First, they swept their most hated rival, keeping the defending champions in full free fall at 6-13. The Yankees, after losing their first three home series to dregs (Orioles, Tigers, White Sox) won this set by dominating the opener and rallying late in the finale.
Brett Gardner’s grand slam was the signature hit, and in the two games the Yankees played as crisply as they had all year. The pen continued to straighten out into the expected force. Clint Frazier compiled one good at-bat after another.
But in the small and big picture there will be nothing as pertinent in these two games as James Paxton dominating the Red Sox on Tuesday and Happ not giving in to a bad stretch of pitching and finding a way to throw a bunch of scoreless innings up after a rough beginning.
The Yankees, despite all the outside cries for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, identified the rotation as the area they most wanted to fortify. They traded for Paxton, giving up their best prospect, Justus Sheffield, to do so. And after finding their top free-agent choice’s financial demands too steep (Corbin signed with Washington for six years at $140 million), they reunited with Happ. Initially, that was not a happy return engagement.
Happ could not get beyond one out into the fifth in any of his first three starts, pitching to an 8.76 ERA. It was mainly because teams were on his four-seam fastball, slugging .813 in at-bats that ended in that pitch, with four homers. Then in the first inning Wednesday, J.D. Martinez clocked a four-seamer that did not get in quite enough for a homer. In the second, Christian Vazquez delivered a two-run short-porch homer to right off, yep, another two-seamer.
And Happ without his two-seamer is like stripping Aaron Judge of his hitting eye. Happ might only throw 92-93 mph, but how he works up in the zone makes the pitch play much faster to hitters. His dependence is overt. Last year, he relied on the four-seamer 59.4 percent of the time and it was 63.8 through three starts this year.
In the first inning Wednesday, Happ delivered 12 pitches, seven of them four-seamers. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Romine conferred about the need to get away from that pitch and Happ threw it just once in the second inning — the one that Vazquez hit out. At that point, Happ could have crumbled considering how it was all playing out in 2019. But he has a saying, “Hold the vision, trust the process.” Essentially, it is a way for him to fall back into belief in his accomplishments and the work he puts in and the faith he has that his team will support him.
In Aaron Boone’s words, that allowed Happ to put “blinders on” and block out what had come before. Rothschild credited Romine for doing a masterful job of navigating Happ to his two-seamer, back-foot slider and changeup. Romine ricocheted the plaudits back to Happ.
“He made a really good adjustment,” the catcher said. “He went out and competed and gave us a very good chance to win.”
Of his 84 pitches, just 16 were four-seamers. After Vazquez’s homer, Boston managed just three more hits, all singles, two in the infield. Happ left with one out in the seventh, the Yankees still within striking distance, down 3-1.
“I rely on my past and know I have the ability to grind through some innings,” Happ said.
He did that. He was not overpowering like Paxton. But in his own way, just as impressive with craft and fortitude. With Luis Severino out until at least July, much will fall on Paxton and Happ to validate the Yankees’ decision to invest in them. For two days in April, they honored that, which was the best news within this sweep.