J.A. Happ
ESNY Graphics, Getty Images

With uncertainty looming in the rotation after the Luis Severino news, J.A. Happ helped put the New York Yankees at ease with a strong debut.

Geoff Magliocchetti

Lefty hurler J.A. Happ might be MLB’s frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year after Saturday.

The left-handed pitcher begins his year with a stellar start for his New York Yankees, throwing two perfect innings in the team’s spring training opener on Saturday. Granted the start against the Toronto Blue Jays, Happ struck out three at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Toronto eventually prevailed in a 2-1 final, but Happ’s debut, particularly his fastball, impressed those gathered in Tampa.

“The fastball was really coming out good,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said, per Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media. “All his secondary pitches looked really good. Sharp. I thought his location was really good as well. I thought he looked excellent.”

“Life was there on the fastball,” manager Aaron Boone added. “Mixed in some four- and two-seamers that I thought were effective. Fought threw a couple of good changeups and a slider. Good day of work. Got his workload up a little bit how we wanted to.”

Happ, 37, may have to take on a bigger role in the Yankees rotation with Luis Severino leaving spring camp for arm soreness. The 2019 season saw him earn 12 wins, but his 4.91 ERA was his worst as a full-time major leaguer since a 5.35 posting as a member of the Houston Astros eight seasons prior.

He recovered late to end the season on the right note. Happ was able to lower his ERA from 5.58 over his final seven appearances in the regular season. Opponents posted a mere .186 batting average against him in the span.

Happ was able to carry on the good vibes when the Bombers gave him the nod on Saturday. All of his strikeout victims were Blue Jay regulars, including a swinging finale that victimized Randall Grichuk. He required just 26 pitches (15 strikes) to cruise through the two innings before giving way to Michael King.

“I do feel different for sure. I’ve got to maintain that, that’s the challenge,” Happ said through Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News. “On Game 1 of the spring, I feel good.”

Speaking with Ackert, Happ expressed a strong desire to put the frustrations of 2019 behind. While he was able to salvage the end of the regular season, he notably gave up Carlos Correa’s walk-off home run that ended Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

“Frustration was high at times, but I always tried to figure it out,” Happ said. “That was a big motivator going in. But motivation’s a thing, like, you gotta do it because you want to do it. You don’t want to do it because somebody writes something that maybe you don’t like, or you see something that you don’t like. I think that’s like a fleeting type of motivation.

“I think the motivation is, I wasn’t here doing what I needed to do because I want to do it for me and for my teammates and my family, and to represent who I am a little bit better. Or at least what I’m capable of.”

The Yankees return to spring action on Feb. 23 against the Tampa Bay Rays (1:05 p.m. ET, MLB Network).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags