SPORTS

Happ has rough outing against Phillies as Jays' search for pitching continues

03/19/2014 04:15 EDT | Updated 05/19/2014 05:59 EDT
DUNEDIN, Fla. - Spring training isn't over yet but it sounds like the Blue Jays are already lowering expectations on their starting pitching.

That seemed to be the case Wednesday in Toronto manager John Gibbons' assessment of his team in the wake of a rocky J.A. Happ start to an 11-6 Grapefruit League win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

"We're going to score some runs," Gibbons said. "If we keep that lineup intact, we'll score some runs. Now the key is just pitching keeping us in the game. We don't have to have a shutdown rotation, just keep us in the game, somewhat match the opposition and let the offence take over.

"We really like our bullpen, (it's) strong. We can match up pretty good down there and our defence is much improved if we can keep everybody on the field as well. So we're feeling pretty good, but we've got to get some starting pitching."

The search continues after Happ, pencilled in as one of Toronto's starters, lasted just 2 2/3 innings. The six-foot-five left-hander threw 71 pitches, including 34 strikes, on a day when pitching coach Pete Walker said the goal was "to get him in the strike zone."

"It's a big start for him," Walker said before the game.

It did not go according to plan, however, on a sunny 21-degree day before 5,255 at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Happ gave up three runs on three hits and walked four with two strikeouts. He let the leadoff hitters get on base the first two innings and often pitched behind in the count.

"Fortunately it's not the end of the world here," Happ said of the spring outing. "But they're going to count soon."

Toronto pitchers have now issued 16 walks in two days although Ricky Romero and Marcus Stroman, who gave up 11 in the Detroit debacle, were both sent to the minors Wednesday.

Toronto entered Wednesday's games with 74 walks in spring training, worst among American League teams.

On the plus side, Jays slugger Jose Bautista hit a pair of two-run homers — his fourth and fifth home runs of the spring. And Melky Cabrera, who now has 19 hits in 45 spring at-bats, drove in two runs with two hits.

And one day after being thumped 18-4 by the Detroit Tigers, the Jays (8-10) rallied from a 3-0 deficit for the win over the Phillies (5-13).

Gibbons took particular pleasure in Ryan Goins' day at the plate. The slick-fielding second baseman, who came into the game hitting .154 with just six hits in 39 at-bats, went three-for-four and drove in two runs.

"He had kind of a breakout day for him," said Gibbons. "And he needed that. He hadn't got a lot of hits but he'd been hitting a lot of balls hard. For a young guy, that's tough to accept. Everybody wants to see results. So that was a big day for him."

But the topic of the day was pitching once again, with questions over who will complete the rotation of a team that went 74-88 last season.

With R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow accounting for three-fifths of the starting rotation, the Jays have spent the spring looking for two more to join them.

While Drew Hutchison has been by far the best of the rest, the Jays have so far resisted appointing him part of the rotation. Instead they have ostensibly given one of the remaining starting jobs to Happ, who has yet to provide much reason for earning it, and said the search continues to fill the final hole.

Happ carried an ERA of 40.50 into Wednesday's game, having given up six runs on six hits with five walks in 1 1/3 innings over two previous spring appearances (not counting a minor league outing). A back problem has delayed his progress in spring training.

He looked for positives in Wednesday's outing, saying his back felt fine and there were some possible minor technical fixes available.

"I don't feel like I'm far (from where I should be)," he told reporters. "You guys are going to take that outing for what it was and it doesn't look pretty. But pitch-wise, I'm up to 70. Next time, it will be 85-90. If I still feel strong, that will be a good thing. So I'm close."

Happ reduced his spring ERA to 20.25.

There seemed to be some mixed messages on Happ's role before Gibbons declared him part of the probable rotation. Happ dodged a question on whether he felt he had to prove something to make the rotation or whether his pedigree had already earned it.

"That's really not up for me to really answer that because that changes to whoever the bosses are," he said. "So it doesn't really matter what I think for that.

"I expect to go out and be better, I know that. And hopefully these next two (outings) will be."

The Jays' starting pitching plans are certainly not set in stone.

"We have an idea of what we're going to do, but things could change," Walker said prior to Wednesday's game.

Happ went 5-7 with a 4.56 ERA in 18 starts for Toronto last year in a season derailed by injury. He suffered a skull fracture and sprained right knee when he fell to the ground after getting hit with a liner by Desmond Jennings on May 7. He returned to action Aug. 7.

Happ lived dangerously Wednesday.

He loaded the bases on a single and two walks in the second inning. With two outs, he was 0-2 on Ben Revere but the Phillies leadoff hitter worked the count to 3-2 and then emptied the bases with a double to the left-field fence.

Happ got the first two outs in the third but then yielded a walk and a single before giving way to Sergio Santos.

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