BOSTON -- J.A. Happ will have spent two consecutive Friday evenings toiling on the Fenway Park mound, though the circumstances will have changed markedly in a week's time. His last assignment was to help the Yankees secure home-field advantage for a one-game playoff; now, he is being asked to put his team up early in a best-of-five American League Division Series.
Happ was announced as the starter for the opener of Friday's ALDS against the Red Sox, and this represents precisely the brand of assignment that prompted the Yankees to acquire the coveted left-hander in July. It will be a popular choice in the clubhouse, where Happ has won fans among his new teammates, including slugger Aaron Judge.
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"He's a warrior. He competes," Judge said. "You can see it in his eyes from the minute he walks out on that mound. Any start, he wants to throw the first pitch and the last pitch of that game. That's the type of guy he is. He's got a lot of fire and that's who I want on the mound. It's fun to play behind a guy like that."
The Yankees' most consistent starter since his arrival, Happ will draw a formidable opponent in standout southpaw Chris Sale, though the Yankees are confident that the stage will not play too big for the 35-year-old veteran. Masahiro Tanaka is set to follow as the Game 2 starter, with Luis Severino in Game 3. Carsten Sabathia would pitch Game 4, if necessary.
"I want to focus on being aggressive and trusting my stuff, just continuing to do what I do, and trust that it's going to be enough," Happ said. "This game is another game. It's a big game, but I'm going to treat it like any other one."
Since switching AL East clubhouses in a swap that shipped infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder Billy McKinney to Toronto, Happ has gone 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts. An added selling point is his success against the Red Sox; in four starts against them this year, Happ is 1-1 with a 1.99 ERA.
"J.A. is a really, really good, accomplished pitcher," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "As a left-handed starter where you know you're going to be facing a lot of right-handed hitters, when you pitch with your fastball, you've got to be able to get it in. He's able to do that. He's able to elevate it. He's got that little bit of life on his fastball that plays up a little more, especially when he's locating it."
Happ twice pitched against the Red Sox in September, including a six-inning, four-run win over the Red Sox at Fenway on Sept. 28. That night, he hurled five scoreless innings before serving up a grand slam to Steve Pearce. Happ also dealt six innings of one-run (none earned) ball against Boston in New York on Sept. 18.
"I'm going to try to take positives from it, regardless of what numbers say and what the team is," Happ said. "Maybe you rely on some past experience and maybe some knowledge gained from that, but once you're out there, I'm just kind of competing."
Friday's game will mark Happ's 11th outing in the postseason and fourth start. He carries a 3.72 ERA in those outings, and most recently pitched in the playoffs for the Blue Jays in 2016.
Happ had been considered to start for the Yankees in their 7-2 win over the A's in the AL Wild Card Game, but the Yankees opted to give the ball to Luis Severino. The tactic worked, positioning the club to start Happ against the Red Sox on an extra day's rest. Should the ALDS advance to a fifth game, Happ could also make that start.
"I'm certainly happy to have the ball tomorrow, and I feel honored to have it," Happ said.
Boston's high-powered lineup has been a force this year. But one glaring mark has been its drastic splits between right- and left-handed pitching. The Red Sox have a .719 OPS against southpaws, nearly 100 points lower than their .817 mark against righties, with only 37 of their 208 homers having come against lefties.
"This is a team that won 108 games," Happ said of the Red Sox. "You don't see that very often. It's a team that's probably as dynamic a team as there is in baseball. I'm certainly aware of their capabilities, and never take anything for granted. So, it's going to be fun."