J.A. Happ appeared to have turned a corner in his previous outing against the Indians on Sunday, picking up the win in his first quality start since April 28.
It followed an eight-start stretch -- one Happ described as maybe the toughest of his 15-year career -- in which he recorded just one win and had a 9.33 ERA. Before Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Royals, manager Rocco Baldelli called Happ an “adjustment maker,” and that outing on Sunday gave the Twins hope that he was regaining the form he’d displayed in his first five starts (1.91 ERA).
“He’s been around in this game for a long time,” Baldelli said prior to the series opener at Kauffman Stadium. “He’s gotten to this point by making adjustments, and I think keeping the ball on parts of the plate that I think he intends to is a big part of his game.”
If his latest start is any indication, he isn’t out of the rough quite yet.
In 4 1/3 innings of work, Happ gave up six runs (five earned) on nine hits, and even though he limited the Royals to just a single free pass, that was about all that went his way.
Before Happ had even thrown a pitch, the Twins gave him some breathing room. Luis Arraez, Josh Donaldson, Trevor Larnach and Alex Kirilloff each picked up hits in the top of the first inning off Royals starter Brady Singer as Minnesota jumped out to a short-lived 3-0 lead.
“Whether it be at the beginning of the game or really any time, it's big to put runs on the board and then put up a few zeros after that,” Baldelli said. “That's something that I think can really get everybody going, and then you have something to really build off of and create a little separation.”
And at first, it did look like the zeros were coming.
Happ breezed through a 1-2-3 bottom of the first, needing just seven pitches to induce two grounders and a popout. But in what seemed like a blink of an eye, Kansas City tied it with three runs on four hits in the second before Happ recorded an out.
The rally started off the bat of Royals catcher Salvador Perez, who announced earlier on Friday that he will participate in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field on July 12. On a 3-2 count, Happ missed his desired location and instead threw a fastball well outside of the zone. It was a pitch that many hitters would’ve taken for ball four.
Instead, Perez took the opportunity for some Derby practice as he lined it over the right-field wall for his 20th homer of the season. Following three more consecutive hits, Minnesota and Kansas City were knotted up at 3.
“Tip your cap to Salvy Perez, man,” Happ said. “He’s got me a couple times this season on balls that aren’t even in the strike zone, so I mean, the guy’s some kind of talent.”
“That may be a different type of category of discussion,” Baldelli said. “That was a spot missed by a lot, still not even close to a strike, and it's hit in the right-field seats. We've seen that one before, and really it comes down to, that's not a pitch that's normally hit out, but it's also not where the ball was intended, either.”
After getting two quick groundouts the next inning, Happ allowed a line-drive single to Perez to extend the inning. On the fourth pitch of the next at-bat, Happ left a slider low but in the middle of the plate and watched the ball fly off second baseman Hanser Alberto’s bat to put Kansas City ahead for good.
“The mistakes I made tonight I got hurt on. I’ve got to find a way to execute a little bit better,” Happ said. “... Tonight I missed over the plate a little bit and paid for it.”
It was a game that began with so much promise as the lineup was hot out of the gate, but it ended with the Twins alone at the bottom of the American League Central standings and with Happ still searching for answers.