Yankee Stadium can be an extremely inhospitable place to play. The fans can be demanding, unforgiving and downright rude.
And that’s just for the home team.
So it was understandable that when J. A. Happ took the mound on Sunday for the first time in Yankee pinstripes, his heart was pumping a little harder than usual despite his 12 years of experience and 248 major league starts.
After all, Tino Martinez and Jason Giambi had been welcomed with boos, and this year, Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League most valuable player, had been subjected to what seems to be a Bronx rite of passage.
Just a day before Happ’s debut, Zach Britton, a top closer who saved 120 games over a three-year period for the Baltimore Orioles, was booed heavily for allowing a run in a game the Yankees won.
Imagine the pressure, then, on a pitcher acquired during the past week for the express purpose of solidifying the one unit on the Yankees in need of fortification: its starting rotation. Happ felt it.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t,” Happ said. “They traded for you, so there’s some pressure in that. You definitely want to have good results.”
And the verdict? “I feel like I handled it all right,” he said.
Happ’s response was as understated as his outing. He worked six innings, allowed one run on three hits, walked one and struck out two. It was precisely the type of no-drama performance that the Yankees needed in cruising to a 6-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals, completing a series in which they won three of four games.
Happ’s workmanlike outing earned what may be the highest praise in the Southern California-inflected lexicon of Manager Aaron Boone, who referred to his newest player as “a significant dude to our rotation.”
And catcher Austin Romine, who barely had time for more than a perfunctory pregame meeting with Happ, looked incredulous when informed that the 35-year-old left-hander had admitted being nervous before the game.
Happ’s efficiency was the perfect antidote to the unease after Luis Severino’s rocky outing in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader and the uncertainty that has continued to surround Sonny Gray despite some recent improvement.
Bolstered by a three-hit day by Aaron Hicks, who had a first-inning home run, a double, a single and two runs batted in, Happ had space to work through some early butterflies. He allowed a first-inning single to Salvador Perez and then settled down to hold the Royals hitless until the sixth, which Rosell Herrera led off with a single that was quickly erased on a double play.
Later in the inning, Happ allowed his only run of the day, a solo homer by Perez, who terrorized Yankees pitchers all weekend with seven hits in 16 at-bats, including three home runs. The only way Happ’s day could have gone better was if he had been removed in the middle of an inning and left the game to the ovation he would have surely received.
The Yankees were leading, 6-1, when Happ left. Relievers Chad Green and David Robertson allowed solo home runs to Hunter Dozier and Herrera — the 25-year-old Herrera’s first major league homer — but Aroldis Chapman struck out the side in the ninth, earning his 28th save of the season.
“It was kind of weird looking down and seeing the pinstripes on me, but I’m happy to get used to it,” Happ said. “You’re in a pennant race, and that’s the most exciting thing in baseball, so that’s why I had some of those nerves in the first inning. It was a little surreal out there, but a lot of fun.”
The Yankees acquired Happ from the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday in exchange for third baseman Brandon Drury and outfielder Billy McKinney, both of whom were playing in the minor leagues. In Happ, the team gained a big-league performance from a pitcher with a 103-82 career record and a 3.94 E.R.A. who has been a 20-game winner and an All-Star. Happ also pitched in a World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009, when they lost to the Yankees.
His stuff is not eye-popping, but he throws strikes and is not afraid to pitch inside, and according to Romine, his smooth delivery makes his 93-mile-per-hour fastball appear much faster. “I remember from hitting against him that his ball gets on you in a hurry,” Romine said. “And I saw that again today.”
Happ was hardly the name among the available starting pitchers as Tuesday’s non waiver trade deadline loomed, but for the Yankees’ purposes, he may turn out to be ideal; his next start is scheduled for Fenway Park on Friday against the Boston Red Sox, whom the Yankees trail by five and a half games in the American League East.
Happ has a 7-4 record and a 2.98 E.R.A. in 18 career starts against the Red Sox, but over the past three seasons, he is 4-1 with a 1.84 E.R.A., and this season he has allowed just one earned run over 10 ⅔ innings while striking out 16. At Fenway, the numbers are 4-2 and 2.91.
“It was fun watching him do his thing, and the pace that he works at,” Boone said. “He’s just get it and go. Just seeing him coming in here with that intensity, that focus, just looking so comfortable and already fitting in so well, you can see he’s going to be really important for us in the second half.”
Happ not only won the game, he won over the tough Yankee Stadium crowd. And sometimes, that can be the toughest victory of all.