Even if he’d like to steer clear of the topic, Cy Young Award chatter is improbably surrounding J.A. Happ as the veteran left-hander continues to pile up victories.
Happ became the first 16-game winner in Major League Baseball this season by tossing six shutout innings Wednesday night as the Toronto Blue Jays blanked the Tampa Bay Rays 7-0 in a game that also saw Troy Tulowitzki post a season-high five runs-batted in.
Happ struck out seven, walked two and yielded only four hits (all singles) in improving his record to 16-3. He’s won 10-straight decisions — going 10-0 over his last 11 starts — to equal a mark among Jays claimed by only Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay.
“He’s having some kind of year, he really is,” manager John Gibbons said after Toronto won the three-game series over Tampa. “He’s a different pitcher, he’s a better pitcher.”
Happ’s breakout season comes two years after he was last with the Blue Jays, who entered the night tied with Baltimore for control of the American League East.
Gibbons describes the 33-year-old as a “new guy” since that last Toronto stint, a reliable force in the rotation who’s getting ground balls like he never did before. Happ started turning a corner in the second half last season, posting a 7-2 mark with the Pittsburgh Pirates along with a sparkling 1.85 earned-run average and 1.03 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched).
“I just have a little bit different mentality, a little better perspective,” Happ said. “And I have more confidence in all my pitches and that makes a huge difference.”
Happ’s toughest sequence Wednesday came in the first inning when the first two Rays to bat both reached base. Happ retired the next three batters, striking out Mikie Mahtook to close the inning. He believed it to be a turning point for his evening.
The Jays quickly snatched the lead thereafter as Devon Travis led off with a single to left, just eluding the glove of shortstop Tim Beckham, before Josh Donaldson singled to right after a foul pop fly was dropped by Tampa right-fielder Steven Souza Jr.
Toronto made Souza Jr.’s error sting when Tulowitzki sent a Blake Snell slider over the wall in left — his 19th home run this season — giving Toronto a 3-0 lead. The three-run blast snapped a franchise-record streak of 17 straight solo home runs for the Jays. Tulowitzki is batting .296 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 40 games since coming off the disabled list on June 18.
“Since he’s come back he’s been pretty unbelievable,” Happ said.
Snell, meanwhile, was charged with three runs in the opening frame, all of them unearned.
The Jays chased him from the game with two outs in the second. After Travis cashed a Darwin Barney double with an RBI-single, Snell went on to issue three straight free passes, the latter to Tulowitzki with the bases loaded. That extended the Blue Jays lead to 5-0.
It was the second time in three games, all at home, that the club posted at least five runs after failing to do so even once over a seven-game road trip last week.
Tulowitzki added his fifth RBI in the sixth, ripping a hard single to right that scored Edwin Encarnacion from second. It was the first five-RBI game for the shortstop as a Jay and first since June 3, 2015 when he was still a member of the Colorado Rockies.
Happ, who posted a 4.22 ERA in going 11-11 with Toronto in 2014, never let an inning get out of hand versus the Rays.
He closed four of six innings with a strikeout, snuffing out any hope of a rally. Happ has given up only two earned runs over his last four starts, striking out 30 and scattering only 12 hits over 25 innings. His ERA now stands at 2.96.
Informed of his season-long numbers of reliability, Gibbons described them as “Cy Young stuff”, even if Happ steered entirely clear of that conversation afterward.
“Any time you’ve got a starter that’s reliable, you know he’s going to throw strikes and he’s going to keep you in the game whether you win it or not, that’s huge,” Gibbons said.
The Toronto bullpen yielded only one hit over three scoreless innings.
Prior to the game, the Blue Jays placed right-fielder Jose Bautista on the 15-day DL. Bautista, batting .222 with 15 home runs, suffered a left knee strain in a 9-2 loss on Tuesday, his left cleat sticking in the turf on an attempted throw from right.
He returned from a DL stint (left toe) just over two weeks earlier and hopes to miss only two weeks.
“I was starting to get in the groove of things,” a frustrated Bautista said. “I was seeing the ball pretty good and making solid contact in the last five, six games.”
The Canadian Press via TSN | Photo: canoe.com
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