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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

‘Amped up’ Happ keeps emotions and Royals in check

Yankees starting pitcher J.A. Happ delivers a pitch

Yankees starting pitcher J.A. Happ delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the third inning of a baseball game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

You probably didn’t notice, but J.A. Happ admitted that he was “amped up” during the early stages of his Yankees debut on Sunday. New team, new uniform, a 20-game jump in the standings. A sellout crowd of 46,192 at the Stadium.

That’s heady stuff, even for a 12-year vet. The adrenaline rush was a real, tangible force that had to be dealt with.

“There was a lot,” Happ said. “It was sort of weird looking down and seeing pinstripes on me.”

The key thing? Nobody could really tell — not us, and not his teammates — because Happ didn’t let it affect the way he did his job. He limited the Royals to three hits and one run in six innings in the Yankees’ 6-3 victory.

The performance wasn’t flashy, dominant or necessarily memorable, other than for Happ’s family and friends. But that’s not what Brian Cashman was trying for in bringing Happ to the Bronx. The general manager sent Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney to the Blue Jays on Thursday because he wanted a solid, unshakable rotation piece with AL East experience who could surf the awaiting turbulence in the next two months and beyond.

Happ looks like that guy. It’s just one start, true, and it was against the lowly Royals. But Happ turned in a better pitching line than either Luis Severino or CC Sabathia did in the previous day’s doubleheader, which the Yankees were fortunate to split. Happ just motored through the afternoon, kept the blood pressure low and left the Yankees’ bullpen with nine outs to get.

That’s all Cashman and Aaron Boone are asking for. Consistent, quality innings from the back end of a rotation that could use some stability and isn’t ready to rely on any of the young guns yet for an extended period, especially in a pennant race. Happ isn’t going to freak out when handed that responsibility. If he didn’t let the mental buildup get to him on the first day, in that spotlight, he should be OK.

“You definitely want to have good results,” Happ said. “They traded for you; there’s pressure in that.”

Without a No. 1 available in the marketplace, the Yankees envisioned Happ as a helpful consolation prize, and bringing him on board at the same time as shutdown reliever Zach Britton showed that both are meant to be complementary pieces in a championship puzzle. Both have talent. But the next-level stuff the Yankees try to look for — or should — is the psychological component, and both seem to be a fit in that department, too.

The expectations that come with donning pinstripes can be debilitating to some, and we’ve already posed that question on numerous occasions with Sonny Gray, whom Cashman acquired last year at this time to be a frontline starter, not back-end help. Coming from the Bay Area, after pitching in relative obscurity for the A’s, doesn’t make for the easiest of transitions, and Gray has shown a surprising vulnerability for a pitcher of his talents.

We don’t envision the same issues with Happ, who already has spent six years in the AL East, dealing with muscular lineups, cozy ballparks and the broiler intensity of playoff races. The Royals didn’t present that challenge Sunday, but Salvador Perez still managed to take him over the right-centerfield wall for a solo homer in the sixth. The primary hurdle, however, was plowing through the cement-mixer of emotions, and Happ did so by retiring 15 of the first 18 batters he faced.

Even the closest Yankee to him — catcher Austin Romine, only about 60 feet away — seemed surprised to hear that Happ was wrangling with the adrenaline flow.

“If he was, I couldn’t see it,” Romine said. “He was business as usual. Calm, cool and collected.”

The outing felt so comfortable, Romine said, that it was as if they already had a history working together. Happ threw his pitches where he wanted and Romine was along for the ride.

For a Yankees team rolling at 67-37, Happ blended in seamlessly on Day 1, but still the one-upmanship continued Sunday at Fenway Park, where former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi — also acquired this past week — pitched seven scoreless innings as the Red Sox beat the Twins to stay 5 1⁄2 games in front.

Story of this season so far. But in the unflinching Happ, the Yankees seem to have found a steady arm — and temperament — who should help them keep pace.

New York Sports