CLEVELAND -- During his first tour of duty with the Blue Jays, left-hander J.A. Happ fantasized about how the city of Toronto would respond to a legitimate contender. He sensed the hunger for a champion, and that was part of the reason he signed on for a return engagement this
CLEVELAND -- During his first tour of duty with the Blue Jays, left-hander J.A. Happ fantasized about how the city of Toronto would respond to a legitimate contender. He sensed the hunger for a champion, and that was part of the reason he signed on for a return engagement this past offseason.
The experience has lived up to expectations so far, and Happ will have a chance to send the Blue Jays home on a high note on Saturday, when he draws the start for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Indians at Progressive Field (4 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S., as well as Sportsnet and RDS in Canada). He and the Blue Jays will be looking to even the series following Friday's 2-0 loss in Game 1.
"That was a big reason I came back," said Happ, who also pitched for the Blue Jays from 2012-14. "I always felt like the city would really be incredible if we could get to that playoff run. And then being away last year and seeing it, how the city responded, being part of it this year is tremendous."
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Happ, 33, enjoyed a career campaign in 2016 after inking a three-year, $36 million deal with Toronto, going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 32 starts. He picked up the victory in Game 2 of the AL Division Series at Texas, holding the Rangers to one run on nine hits over five innings in the Blue Jays' 5-3 victory.
"We'd always liked Happ. I didn't expect him to win 20 games, to be honest with you," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "We've got a lot of guys on our team that are late bloomers in their career -- [Jose] Bautista, [Edwin Encarnacion], [Josh] Donaldson, there's a bunch of them -- and I think he just fits in that mold.
"He's come together in the later stage of his career. I figure he'll be good for a number of years to come. It really couldn't happen to a better guy."
Before this season, Happ's career high in wins was 12, for the 2009 Phillies. He logged 19 victories combined over his three years with the Blue Jays beginning in 2012, then bounced to the Mariners and Pirates. Happ said that his recent success stems from a reinvention that took hold while with Pittsburgh last season.
That brief stay with the Bucs saw Happ scrap the mindset of a power pitcher who relied upon strikeouts, which often left him with high pitch counts and early exits. His new approach strikes more of a finesse note, as he adjusted his arm slot to more of a three-quarters angle. Happ elevates the ball when he feels the need, but he has increasingly leaned upon a two-seam fastball to induce ground balls and keep Toronto's defense busy.
"That's been a little different," Happ said. "I've gotten more ground balls than in the past with the introduction of the two-seam fastball, and playing on the turf and having those guys behind me has helped tremendously."
The return to the postseason has been enjoyable for Happ, who went to the World Series in his first two seasons with the Phillies, in 2008 and '09. He, more than many, can envision what it would be like if the Blue Jays could pick up the necessary four wins against the Indians to host this year's Fall Classic.
"I was fortunate my first couple of years with Philadelphia to go to a couple of World Series, and I experienced kind of that atmosphere there," Happ said. "And after not being in the playoff hunt for the next several years, you're just that much more anxious to feel that again. And it's been everything that I've been waiting for."
Bryan Hoch has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.