OAKLAND – The following is a question this writer did not expect to type this season: where would the Blue Jays be without the contribution of J.A. Happ?
Happ's seven wins are second on the staff to Mark Buehrle's 10. Win-loss record is an antiquated stat, sure, but win total is generally an indication of a pitcher's ability to work deep into games, enough to be personally affected by the result.
Efficiency has been an issue for Happ during his time in Toronto. He's acquired a reputation as a five-inning pitcher, driven prematurely from outings because he's plodded along to 100 pitches far too soon. It's gotten late, often, far too early.
Something has changed. Suddenly, in more starts than not, Happ is working deep, positively affecting the result. When he returned to the rotation on May 5 in Philadelphia, Happ's future was being determined on a start-to-start basis. The leash is now longer.
Since being acquired from the Astros in July 2012, Happ has been a starter and a reliever; he's been injured, first with a fractured foot two seasons ago and then with head and knee injuries last year, the result of a horrifying line drive off his skull on May 7, 2013 in Tampa Bay. His back flared up in spring training, resulting in a horrible March that cost him his spot in the rotation and landed him on the disabled list for opening day.
There have been periods of self doubt, he admitted to TSN.ca.
"I certainly would be lying if I said no to that," said Happ. "Last year there was a point where I tried to talk to (pitching coach) Pete (Walker) one on one and was just like, 'What have you got? I know I'm capable of more and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get over the hump.' I never thought I was far away but I just couldn't quite get over the hump for whatever reason. It comes and goes and it still does."
Happ is a quiet guy. He doesn't say much, at least not when media have access to the players. Nobody would accuse Happ of seeking the limelight. He laughed in spring training, after he was away from the team for two days to deal with the back problem, when it was pointed out to him that a guy so quiet couldn't seem to avoid controversy.
He's heard the talk and he's read the articles. He knows he has his critics and his doubters; he's been one himself. Happ isn't bitter.
"I think you write what you see and if that's what you see then that's your interpretation and understanding," said Happ. "That's how this thing works. I can't be mad at anybody for what they feel like or whatever. I just know what I knew, or know, I'm capable of so that's why I try to defend myself in situations where I'm maybe not in a position where I'd like to be."
Happ has allies in two of important places: the manager's and coaches' offices, where John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker reside. Gibbons has consistently defended his left-hander, quick to point out Happ's ordeal last season and confident that a slight arm slot adjustment ultimately would pay off.
"I've always been a fan of the guy," said Gibbons. "I've always known what he's capable of, but the bottom line is he's got to go out and do that. He's had his ups and downs along the way but everybody in the game at this level, I mean, very few guys take this game by storm year after year."
"I think he's comfortable in that slot right now," said Walker. "It's not as high as it used to be and it's not as low as he first started when we dropped him down. It's kind of that in-between slot and I think he's really comfortable throwing there. I think he's in a good place physically and mentally he looks forward to that ball every five days."
Happ has been told to attack the strike zone. He's been told to pitch to contact. He's been told to more aggressively use his fastball. He's doing both. Consider this: in his start against the White Sox on June 26, a 7-0 win in which he went 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball, Happ threw 124 pitches, 111 of which were fastballs.
The relationship with Walker is an important one to Happ, forged when he joined the Blue Jays two years ago. Walker was the bullpen coach at the time. Happ was a reliever who believed he should be a starter. The two meshed.
"He's a guy that I always felt like he felt that I was capable of more and expected more and kind of knew that it was in there," said Happ. "I know that's kind of part of his job and he probably does it to everybody but he's very good at individualizing things and I always felt like he kind of had my back and I felt the same way about Gibby too. Maybe that's the reason why I'm still here."
There will be future outings when Happ struggles. The aim, of course, is to turn those into the exception rather than the rule. That June 21 start in Cincinnati, for example. Happ got rapped for seven earned runs in four innings. He bounced back with that gem against the White Sox and a strong start against the Brewers.
The doubters who believed Happ, version Cincinnati, was the real guy were forced to reconsider.
So if this is the real Happ, what happened? Why did a left-handed pitcher with a mid-90s fastball lack mound presence? Why did it appear that he didn't trust his repertoire?
"Any answer to this is going to sound like an excuse and that's the last thing I want it to be," said Happ. "I let myself get caught up in a situation, playing on a team that wasn't very successful and I allowed that to affect me mentally as much I tried to not (let it). I think I probably got into some bad habits."
Those bad habits were both mental and mechanical. Success, however, breeds confidence. Happ has had some success. His body language on the mound projects confidence.
Maybe Yogi Berra was right when he suggested that 90 per cent of baseball is half mental.
"You've got to believe and you've got to really believe that you guys have got a chance out there in order for it to happen," said Happ. "You can't just wish things to happen in this game. They just don't. You've got to go make it happen. I had a tough couple of years trying to kind of find myself and who I think I should be and I feel good about getting in a place where my body feels good, my mechanics feel good and I'm just a little more free in everything. I felt like I had to be perfect for a lot of the time for things to go right and that's just not the case."