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Blue Jays tab Happ for Opening Day start

Gibbons sets rotation to begin season against Yankees
MLB.com @gregorMLB

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There was a time when it seemed like J.A. Happ could not buy a break with the Blue Jays. Now he's their Opening Day starter.

One of the worst kept secrets in baseball became official on Tuesday morning when Happ was named the club's starting pitcher for the season opener against the Yankees on March 29. The Blue Jays also announced Happ will be followed in the rotation by Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Jaime Garcia.

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There was a time when it seemed like J.A. Happ could not buy a break with the Blue Jays. Now he's their Opening Day starter.

One of the worst kept secrets in baseball became official on Tuesday morning when Happ was named the club's starting pitcher for the season opener against the Yankees on March 29. The Blue Jays also announced Happ will be followed in the rotation by Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Jaime Garcia.

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The Blue Jays initially were expected to hand the ball to Stroman on Opening Day, but a right shoulder injury early in camp changed all of that. Stroman will be ready for the first week of the season, but his setback opened the door for Happ, who becomes the club's fifth Opening Day starter in five years.

"It feels good and I haven't always had that," Happ said of having the confidence from his organization. "After being here the last few years, and having great experiences for the most part, it's nice to feel that confidence they have in me and the trust level. That's something as a player that you strive for so it feels good to have that."

The decision to give Happ the ball for the first game seems rather fitting. Estrada received the honor in 2016 and Stroman was the top pick the year before. Sanchez eventually should become the obvious choice, but there's no point in putting him in the No. 1 spot now and only adding to the pressure he faces after missing almost all of 2017 with blister issues.

Happ, on the other hand, has never experienced this before. He won 20 games for the Blue Jays in 2015, but he was passed over the following year in favor of Estrada. Happ has paid his dues, and even if the honor of Opening Day is more ceremonial than anything else it's one he deserves after posting back-to-back seasons with an ERA of 3.53 or below.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Happ on Pillar's glove, AL East

All of this from a guy who was put in the bullpen when the Blue Jays acquired him in a 2012 trade with the Astros. He reported to camp the following year without a guaranteed job and only joined the rotation following the abrupt demotion of former ace Ricky Romero. Then there was the unexpected trade to the Mariners at the end of 2014 and another move to the Pirates the following year.

This has not been an easy journey, but somewhere along the way, Happ turned into Mr. Reliable. After years of tinkering with his arm slot, he found a comfort zone in his early 30s, and at age 35, he is showing no signs of slowing down.

"I watched a lot of other players, a lot of other left-handers and I felt like I was not far from being on that level, and I'm talking about quality to elite starting pitchers in the game, their stuff and how they pitch," Happ said. "A few adjustments and I felt like I could be there. I felt like the repertoire was there so I think it was just a work in progress, being more consistent and that side of the game means so much."

One potential flaw in this rotation is throwing lefties on back-to-back days. Gibbons did not rule out making some minor adjustments once the season is underway, but the obvious priority here was making sure Garcia did not pitch in the opening four-game series against the Yankees.

New York's lineup of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez should be extremely tough on lefties. Toronto had to use one lefty against the Yanks, but the plan was to avoid using two and that's why Garcia will instead start the series opener vs. the White Sox. Later in the month, if the Blue Jays so choose, they could use an off-day to swap Stroman and Garcia to avoid using the lefties in back-to-back games.

"First off, they're all good," Gibbons said of his staff. "We like their ability and it's a seasoned group. You've got a couple of lefties in there. We have some different looks, too. A couple of power guys, three of them are ground-ballers with Sanchy, Stro and Garcia ... and they're all capable of strikeouts, too. It's a good, strong group."

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

Toronto Blue Jays, Marco Estrada, Jaime Garcia, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman