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J.A. Happ has positive debut for Yankees as he tries to rebound from difficult 2019 season

Yankees' starting pitcher J.A. Happ against the Toronto

Yankees' starting pitcher J.A. Happ against the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1st inning of the first game of spring training at George Steinbrenner Stadium in Tampa, FL on Saturday Feb. 22, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

TAMPA, Fla. — There were good spurts here and there, but  2019 was the most disappointing of J.A. Happ’s 13 seasons in the majors.

The lefthander went 12-8 with a 4.91 ERA and, most embarrassing, allowed a career-worst 34 homers — in only 161 1/3 innings.

“Every emotion you could have, I had,” Happ said Saturday. “Frustration was high at times.”

So the 37-year-old Happ, a more than respectable 121-90 with a 3.99 ERA in 13 major league seasons, went about attacking the offseason with an approach that was  slightly different from others, primarily working on his “body and mechanics,” he said.

“I do feel different for sure,” he said. “I’ve got to maintain that, that’s the challenge. On Game 1 of the spring, I feel good.”

Indeed, Game 1, a brisk two innings in which Happ retired all six batters he faced and struck out three in the Yankees' 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays in their Grapefruit League opener, could not have gone much better.

Happ, who threw a bit more this offseason than in past ones, saw his fastball hit 93 mph on the radar gun, velocity he typically doesn’t reach in his first outing of spring training.

“I was hoping,” he said. “I don’t know maybe what I expected, but based on how we progressed in the other live BPs [this month], I was hoping it would be in that area.”

With the rotation already short because of James Paxton's back surgery and uncertainty surrounding Luis Severino's forearm issues, Happ — who is entering the second year of his two-year, $34 million contract — is going to receive a lot more attention than he would have otherwise.

Part of Happ’s offseason included getting work done at the Yankees’ minor- league complex here, beginning in November and continuing until pitchers and catchers reported two weeks ago. Those behind the scenes at the complex have talked about observing a player going about his work as if he has “something to prove.”

That's something Happ didn’t dismiss out of hand — but with a caveat.

“That was a big motivator going in,” Happ said of his 2019 season. “But motivation’s a thing, like, you have to 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 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.”

He did show that down the stretch in 2019, going 2-0 with a 2.23 ERA in his last six outings (five starts).

In a 17-pitch first inning Saturday, Happ retired leadoff man Bo Bichette on a soft grounder to second before striking out Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. looking at fastballs. He set down Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Rowdy Tellez on fly balls to start the second and ended the nine-pitch inning by striking out Randal Grichuk swinging at a 90-mph fastball.  

“I thought the life was there on the fastball,” Aaron Boone said. “He mixed in some four- and two-seam [fastballs] that I thought were both effective. I thought he threw a couple of good changeups and a slider, so a good day of work.”

As for the situations with Paxton, who won’t be back until May at the earliest, and Severino, who is headed back to New York on Sunday for additional testing because of the mysterious right forearm soreness he’s been dealing with, Happ said they don’t add to the pressure he feels to get himself right.

“I think that’s a separate thing,” he said. “I don’t know if I would try any harder whether we had full health or not. I’m giving it what I have no matter what. But I think as a team, everybody’s going to try to pick up the supposed slack.”

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