Brian Cashman said there was a “simple” reason that J.A. Happ made only his fourth start of the season and first since Aug. 16 on Saturday.
And the Yankees’ general manager said it wasn’t because of what the lefthander strongly hinted at last week as the reason — that the Yankees are manipulating his starts and innings so he doesn’t reach a $17-million vesting option for 2021.
“You get a chance to play more with positive performance and you get the chance to play less with negative performance. It’s as simple as that,” Cashman said Saturday. “He had a poor season last year, and he’s gotten out of the gate not very successful for us this year. We’re certainly hopeful he can step up and pitch well for us today and help us win a game, but it’s pure baseball.”
Happ did exactly what Cashman hoped for — and at a time when the skidding Yankees desperately needed it.
Helped by Happ’s dominant 7 1/3 innings, the Yankees survived yet another bad day by the bullpen and snapped a seven-game losing streak with a walk-off 2-1 victory over the Mets at the Stadium.
The Yankees, who hadn't won since Aug. 17, were in danger of dropping eight straight for the first time since August 1995.
“We needed that bad today,” said DJ LeMahieu, who returned from the injured list and went 1-for-4 with a triple. “Hopefully that sparks us and gets us back to playing the way we should be playing.”
The Yankees won it against former Yankee Dellin Betances in the ninth on a wild pitch that brought in Clint Frazier. He led off the inning with a walk and went to third on a sliced single down the rightfield line by Jordy Mercer, recently signed and just brought up from the alternate site. With the count 0-and-1, Erik Kratz squared around to bunt and Betances fired a high pitch to the backstop to end it.
“I’m glad I laid off it,'' Kratz said with a smile.
It was a wild finish to a day that was mostly about Happ.
After Happ retired Robinson Cano to start the eighth, Aaron Boone brought in Adam Ottavino to face the right-handed-hitting Wilson Ramos, who tied the score at 1-1 with a home run off the leftfield foul pole.
That made it six homers allowed by the Yankees’ top relievers in two innings-plus to blow four late-inning leads in four straight games (Chad Green was victimized twice and Aroldis Chapman and Ottavino once).
“We trust Ottavino 100%,” said Happ, adding that he was “fine” with Boone’s decision (the two had talked about it before he headed back out for the eighth to face Cano). “He just happened to hit it off the foul pole.”
Luke Voit hit his 12th home run in the first inning, an opposite-field shot to rightfield off Robert Gsellman. It was his seventh home run in nine games.
The Yankees had runners thrown out at the plate on consecutive plays in the fourth inning, as Mike Tauchman was retired on Frazier's grounder to third and Frazier was tagged out while trying to score on Brett Gardner's double off the right-centerfield wall.
Because of postponements and doubleheaders, Saturday’s game was the first time the Yankees had reached the eighth inning since Aug. 20.
The Yankees (17-13), who entered the day four games behind the AL East-leading Rays, will play the Mets in a doubleheader — their third in five days — on Sunday. Deivi Garcia and Mike King will start for the Yankees, in some order, with Garcia making his MLB debut.
Happ was terrific, allowing no runs, three hits and no walks with five strikeouts. He came in 1-1 with a 6.39 ERA but was coming off his best start of the year on Aug. 16, when he allowed one run in 5 2/3 innings against the Red Sox.
His vesting option would have been triggered in a typical season if he made 27 starts or pitched 165 innings. In the coronavirus-shortened 60-game season, that prorates to 10 starts or 61 1/3 innings. Happ has made four starts and thrown 19 2/3 innings.
“You guys [in the media] are pretty smart,” Happ said Tuesday. “It doesn’t take too much to figure out, sort of, what could be going on.”
Though it does happen, MLB rules clearly spell out that teams are not allowed to manipulate a player’s time on the field to avoid an option from vesting.
“You’re going to start your best starters and get them the ball as much as you possibly can in this shortened COVID season,” Cashman said. “And, unfortunately, because of how we evaluate our rotation, and I think objectively how anybody would look at, based on JA Happ’s performance last year and this year so far in the regular season, he spots towards the back of that rotation.”
But that was not the case Saturday, much to the Yankees’ delight.
After the game, told of Cashman’s comments, Happ did not engage further.
“I don’t think I will right now, no,” he said. “I think right now my focus is going to be on the baseball. I answered some of the stuff I wanted to say [Tuesday] and . . . I think we’ll leave that there.”
When Ramos homered off Ottavino, it meant that the Yankees’ best relievers had allowed six home runs in two innings-plus to blow four late-inning leads in four games. In the sixth inning of Game 2 of a doubleheader In Atlanta on Wednesday, Green allowed a two-out, two-run homer by Freddie Freeman to erase a 1-0 lead in a 2-1 loss. In the sixth inning of Game 1 on Friday, Green entered with a 4-1 lead and allowed a tying three-run homer by Pete Alonso and back-to-back blasts by Dominic Smith and Jake Marisnick in a 6-4 loss to the Mets. In the seventh inning of Game 2 that night, Chapman entered with a 3-2 lead and allowed a walk-off two-run homer by Amed Rosario in a 4-3 loss.