J.A. Happ was nearly perfect after joining the Yankees last July, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts.
Then came Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Red Sox.
Happ lasted just two innings and allowed five runs, including a three-run home run to J.D. Martinez that set the tone for the Red Sox’s four-game series victory and eventual World Series title.
The Yankees didn’t hold that poor showing against Happ, obviously, as they re-signed the 36-year-old lefthander to a two-year, $34-million contract with a vesting option for 2021 that would be worth another $17 million. Happ said the option will kick in if he makes 27 starts or pitches 165 innings in 2020.
"I certainly don't need to downplay the importance of a playoff game," Happ said on Thursday in a conference call. "You go back and you look at it, and J.D. Martinez hit a pitch that not a lot of guys hit. He beat me on that pitch and that's all I can really say about that. But I'm not really here to defend myself. I feel like my work stands for itself. I'm just anxious to try to go out there and produce."
Produce he did after the Yankees acquired him from the Blue Jays on July 26. In 2019, Happ will join Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and CC Sabathia as the Yankees’ top five starters.
"I certainly enjoyed my time in New York, the last couple of months of the 2018 season," Happ said. "It was a big reason why I felt comfortable going back. At this point in my career, I've taken a lot of things into account, but the chance to win was high on that list. I feel like this was a place that you come to the ballpark to win every day. I really appreciated that."
As an unflappable veteran, Happ also fit well into the Yankees clubhouse. He didn’t talk a lot. He just went out and pitched.
"Feeling the vibe of that clubhouse and the veteran leadership that it had, as well as a lot of very talented young players who are playing the game the right way and putting in the work and (are) anxious to get better, I think it was just a good combination," Happ said. "Then, you add the coaching staff to that and everything that surrounds playing in New York and the stage, it makes it exciting. That's something that stuck with me going into this offseason."
Happ, Paxton and Sabathia give the Yankees three lefthanders. Happ was teammates with Paxton briefly in Seattle in 2015 and gave that acquisition a thumbs up.
"I think it was a really strong, smart move," Happ said. "I know Pax . . . The kid's got all the potential in the world and threw a no-hitter last year. He's going to be exciting. I think New York is going to fall in love with him, and I think he's going to enjoy that stage."