PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons maintained all along that left-hander J.A. Happ belonged on the team. Now it's official.
The demotion of left-hander Ricky Romero on Tuesday put Happ in the Blue Jays starting rotation as fifth starter.
The Blue Jays then showed their faith in Happ on Wednesday by awarding him a two-year contract extension worth US$8.9 million, superseding an earlier contract signed in January, with a club option for 2015.
Happ had a good spring training, while Romero did not. Regardless, Gibbons felt Happ deserved a role with the Blue Jays despite the early plan to have him open the season in the starting rotation at triple-A Buffalo.
"No doubt, even if he had a bad spring he deserved to be on the team," Gibbons said before the Blue Jays defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 6-1. "He's a proven big-league pitcher."
"That's definitely good to hear from a guy who knows baseball," Happ said after allowing one run in 4 2/3 innings. "That's a great compliment. That's a lot of what I was trying to get across to them before coming into camp and then trying to do as well as I could here to help the case."
Happ, 30, is 35-35 with an earned-run average of 4.19 in 116 career major-league outings, including 96 starts. He was obtained by the Blue Jays last July in a trade with the Houston Astros.
While Romero struggled with an earned-run average of 6.23 in five Grapefruit League starts, Happ kept putting in good starts despite the uncertainty of his role/ He maintained all spring that he was a major-league starter.
Happ received the call from general manager Alex Anthopoulos on Tuesday telling him that he would open the season in the rotation.
"It was great, definitely a relief," Happ said. "It was certainly nice to know. Excited more than anything as I think everybody is about this ball club. Hoping it's going to be a lot of fun, it should be."
Against the Rays he allowed four hits and four walks while striking out four to leave him with a 1.90 earned-run average in seven Grapefruit League outings, including six starts.
"Happ put his money where his mouth is," Gibbons said. "He came out and said he wants to be the fifth starter, he deserved it and he got it. I expect him to be good. He's a competent guy and good lefties are hard to find."
Happ had allowed only three walks all spring training entering Wednesday's game, so the four he allowed to the Rays were a little out of character for what he has shown this spring.
"Definitely, especially the way the spring has gone for me," said Happ, who has 18 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings. "I'm definitely not going to get down about it. I feel good physically. I tried to make adjustments as the game went on. I lost a couple of guys. That happens but that's not what I want."
The move to send Romero on option to single-A Dunedin was made after he allowed three runs (two earned) over 4 1/3 innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday. He will continue to work on the adjustments he is making and pitch in the rotation with the Florida State League team.
"It was a tough decision," Gibbons said. "The way things were going it has been an up and down camp for him coming off a tough year (9-14 with a 5.77 ERA in 2012). And he was feeling the heat. He was kind of the main focus. Everything else had been positive and he was kind of that one question mark, (but) not in our minds. He was under the microscope. He dealt with it pretty good early.
"But he is just too inconsistent right now. With Pete (pitching coach Walker) and him making some mechanical adjustments with the stride and all that stuff, he just wasn't ready. You see progress but to be fair to him and to the team it's best that he should be down here and iron it out."
Happ will stay in Florida and will pitch to minor-leaguers on Monday before joining the Blue Jays in Toronto. His first scheduled major-league start is April 6 against the Boston Red Sox at Rogers Centre.
Notes: The Blue Jays pitching staff is set, barring late development, for the season opener on April 2 against the Cleveland Indians at Rogers Centre. They will go with eight relievers while third baseman Brett Lawrie of Langley, B,C., is on the disabled list with a strained left rib-cage area. Casey Janssen will be the closer with the rest of the bullpen consisting fellow right-handers Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers and Jeremy Jeffress and left-handers Darren Oliver, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil….Cecil and Jeffress got the news on Wednesday. ….The starting rotation is led by right-hander R.A. Dickey followed by right-hander Brandon Morrow, left-hander Mark Buehrle, right-hander Josh Johnson and Happ. …Colby Rasmus hit a grand slam to key Toronto’s six-run eighth inning in Wednesday’s game against the Rays.