MINNEAPOLIS -- J.A. Happ is 38 years old, and you can start to see it in the hints of gray that poke through the bushy beard that he’s grown out this April. Only 13 months younger than his manager, Happ’s consistency and bona fides over a 15-year career speak for themselves: He’s a World Series champion and made his 300th career start a week ago.
For seven innings and change, Happ was in pursuit of a night of individual glory to add to a career defined by consistency, longevity and winning baseball, as ball after ball found glove while the veteran left-hander held the Pirates hitless through 22 outs.
There was to be no history at Target Field on Friday night, as Jacob Stallings’ double down the left-field line ended Happ’s bid for his first career no-hitter with one out in the eighth. Still, it was exactly the outing the Twins needed as they snapped a four-game skid by allowing one hit in a 2-0 blanking of the Pirates, fueled by homers from Willians Astudillo and Jake Cave.
"It's just taking the whole team, picking everybody up,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That's exactly what you're looking for. Taking the chance out of things, going out there, just attacking hitters and making good pitches.”
It wasn’t one of those outings where a pitcher blows away all who dare step into the batter’s box -- Happ walked two and struck out three -- and it took a team effort with strong infield play as Happ pitched to contact. Baldelli has often had a quick hook for his starters, but considering Happ’s efficiency, the skipper said he would have let the lefty go the distance.
Though Happ was pitching with the effectiveness of someone several years his junior, his determination to finish things off did show some urgency of where he stands at this stage of his career.
“At this point, I’m going until. … I don’t care what it takes,” Happ said. “If there’s a zero up there, I’m going and you’d be hard-pressed to get me off the mound, too, if that stayed the case.”
Happ’s outing began with several hard-hit balls in the early innings, including a deep flyout to the left-field warning track by Wilmer Difo in the second following a pair of walks that fell mere feet shy of leaving the yard for a three-run homer. From there, he was firmly in the driver’s seat.
Starting with that deep flyout, Happ retired 17 straight batters, with ground balls hit right at infielders and fly balls hanging up long enough for the Twins’ outfielders to take control. After allowing three hard-hit balls (in excess of 95 mph) through three innings, he didn’t give up another until the final out of the seventh, a hard lineout to left by Erik Gonzalez.
“I think the way he handles himself on the mound, too -- he's intense, but there's a relaxedness to him,” Baldelli said. “He's very comfortable after all these years with how to go out there and do his job. He's comfortable, seemingly, in every situation.”
The possibility of history seemed all the more realistic after Happ got one of those strokes of fate that seem present in just about every no-hitter or perfect game. In the fifth, Difo hit a grounder back to the mound that caromed off Happ, whose throw to first appeared to hit the runner. The umpires ruled that Difo interfered by running out of the baseline, keeping the no-hitter intact through five innings.
But three frames later, after Happ became the first Twins starter to pitch into the eighth this season, Stallings cracked an inside fastball cleanly over the head of third baseman Josh Donaldson, at 106.2 mph, ending Happ’s bid for the record books and his outing.
"I was having fun that at-bat, honestly,” Stallings said. “I just didn't feel much pressure, to be honest with you. I feel like in that situation, all the pressure's on the pitcher.”
It marked Happ’s first career start -- among 301 in all -- of at least 7 1/3 innings with one hit allowed.
Even without the historic implications, it was exactly the start the scuffling Twins needed at exactly the right time, coming off nine losses in 10 games with a COVID-19 outbreak sandwiched in between.
But still -- Happ knows how close he came, and afterwards, he struggled to find the words of what it would have meant to him, this deep into a decorated career.
“I’ve never been that close,” Happ said. “That would have been… that would have been great. It would have been fun to celebrate that.”