J.A. Happ Turns Into the Yankees’ Unlikely Ace

J.A. Happ Turns Into the Yankees’ Unlikely Ace
J.A. Happ Turns Into the Yankees’ Unlikely Ace

Cole wobbled through five shaky innings, but it didn’t matter much, because Jake Arrieta shut out the Pirates, 4-0. One hot pitcher can stifle an opponent at any time, which is why the Yankees would rather not have to play their third wild-card game in four seasons.

That is probably their fate, though, barring a collapse by the Boston Red Sox. Last October, against the Minnesota Twins, the Yankees survived a clunker by Luis Severino, who gave up two homers among his four hits, leaving in the first inning with a 3-0 deficit. The Yankees’ bullpen and bats saved them.

Severino is the Yankees’ nominal ace, like Cole for the 2015 Pirates. He is also the major league leader in victories, with 17. But Severino has a 6.56 E.R.A. in his last nine starts, and opponents have hit .325. With a month to go, Happ is the Yankees’ most trustworthy starter.

“This is a guy I was really hoping we’d be able to get,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “So him coming here and having success, I kind of expected it, just because of the high regard I have for him as a pitcher. He’s a guy with quality stuff but just a real simple, athletic, repeatable delivery, a really good demeanor on the mound. Whether he makes a great pitch or not, he’s able to just stay in rhythm and turn the page.”

Happ was not always so composed. In the minors, he struggled to control his emotions. He would pout and whine, he said, until his father, Jim, implored him to go easier on himself; sometimes, inevitably, everyone fails.

Happ also learned, deep into his major league career, to play to his strengths as a pitcher. Most pitchers throw harder than Happ, whose fastball averages just under 92 miles an hour. But Happ’s fastball generates exceptional life through the strike zone, with the illusion of hop that allows him to get foul balls or swings and misses on pitches above the belt.

“When I was younger, I was trying to learn how to be like a Tom Glavine — throw four different pitches at any time down in the zone for strikes, expand the zone, be perfect, pinpoint,” Happ said. “That’s not who I was meant to be. I took awhile to try to fight that. And then when I stopped fighting that, things got better for me.”

As a staff, the Yankees throw the fewest fastballs in the majors. Happ ranks among the leaders in fastball usage. Yet the Yankees knew better than to change him, and now they should let him keep rolling, right on into the familiar playoff game they would rather avoid.

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