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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

J.A. Happ doesn't look like himself as Tigers again get to starter

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ kicks the dirt after

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ kicks the dirt after giving up a leadoff home run to the Tigers' Jeimer Canalario during a game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. Credit: David L. Pokress

Don’t pencil in J.A. Happ for that wild-card start just yet. Not after Happ looked all-too-human Thursday night getting tattooed by the Tigers, his personal Kryptonite this season.

Amid all the talk of Happ becoming the second coming of the ’05 Shawn Chacon, who was dominant (7-3, 2.85 ERA) after being shipped east by the Rockies, he stalled that conversation for an evening by serving up three home runs to Detroit, one fewer than his previous five starts combined.

The Yankees rallied from three deficits to get Happ off the hook, but lost anyway when Dellin Betances allowed back-to-back homers in the ninth for the 8-7 loss. That was stunning. But Happ being lit up by the Tigers? Not so much. A closer look at his pre-Bronx resume revealed that Happ had a 9.28 ERA in two starts against the Tigers this year, and that trend continued from the jump Thursday night.

As soon as Detroit’s leadoff hitter Jeimer Candelario ambushed him in the first inning, pulling a high fastball into the leftfield seats, this Happ start had a different vibe. His ability to “self-correct,” a feature that Aaron Boone repeatedly has raved about, never really kicked in.

The Yankees didn’t help much, again displaying some shoddy defense, a trademark of this recent bumpy ride. But after breezing through a 1-2-3 third, all on routine groundouts, Happ ran into trouble in the fourth inning, initiated by Niko Goodrum’s one-out single.

Goodrum stole second, then raced to third on a wild pitch. Once the Yankees pulled the infield in, to protect their 2-1 lead, Ronny Rodriguez drilled the next pitch, a 3-and-2 fastball, over the leftfield wall. And as soon as Gleyber Torres’ own two-run shot put Happ back on top again, he immediately flushed the lead by teeing up a two-run homer to Victor Martinez in the fifth.

It was shocking to see, only because Happ had been so reliable since putting on pinstripes, and the Tigers, to put it bluntly, are so bad. Before Thursday, Detroit was last in the majors with 106 homers and ranked 28th in both OPS (.675) and runs scored (505). The Tigers were not supposed to be a threat, even with the Yankees treading water as they wait for reinforcements.

Whatever their offensive deficiencies, Happ had become the one starter who could be counted on to neutralize the other side. Since the July 26 trade, Happ was 5-0 with a 2.37 ERA, the only setback being his brief DL battle with hand, foot and mouth disease. In the span of a month, Happ had vaulted to the front of the rotation.

Acquired to be a complimentary piece, Happ looked every bit like a No. 1 since arriving in the Bronx. And after dropping two of three to the White Sox, the Yankees felt they had the right guy for the job for Thursday’s series opener.

“It’s one of those days you look forward to,” Boone said before the game. “No question.”

One bad start won’t change that. No pitcher is immune from being knocked around on any given night, even by a team that’s 27 games below .500, and maybe the Tigers just have Happ’s number this season. It’s just that the Yankees are searching for some stability in their rotation lately and Happ was one of the few rocks, along with fellow deadline pickup Lance Lynn.

That provided Boone some comfort, especially with his presumptive ace, Luis Severino, still struggling to return to his first-half form. Since pitching in the All-Star Game, Severino is 3-4 with a 6.63 ERA and 1.609 WHIP in seven starts. Opponents also have a ripped him for a .318 batting average and .911 OPS.

The White Sox roughed up Masahiro Tanaka for 10 hits and four runs over seven innings in Monday’s 6-2 loss, raising his August ERA to 4.40 ERA. CC Sabathia has looked fine since returning from his DL stint (knee inflammation) but took the L for Wednesday’s defeat despite turning in a quality start (6 inn., 3 runs).

The Yankees don’t need to name a wild-card starter tomorrow (notice we’ve put the AL East race on hold for now). There’s still another month to sort that out, and for Happ to show that Thursday’s throttling was a mere hiccup along the way. With everything the Yankees have been through recently, it would be nice to have Happ to look forward to again.

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