Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Ever since he broke in with the Phillies a decade ago, J.A. Happ has relied on rhythm and precision to carve up hitters. During his best seasons, Happ's results have outpaced the quality of his actual repertoire.
In order to achieve this, Happ relies on the subtleties of confidence and controlled aggression. When he's on, he works quickly, pounds the edges of the strike zone, and tricks himself into being unafraid that the ball might drift out over the middle of the strike zone and end up crushed over an outfield wall. He's one of those players who's good because he believes he's good.
So far this season, Happ has not been able to find that mindset. He is overthinking between pitches, and finding the ideal pace elusive. He is tentative and cerebral -- two qualities that undermine him when they emerge too strongly.
On Wednesday night, Happ has the chance to help turn around his own season and that of his team. Pitching for a two-game sweep against the Red Sox, Happ can succeed by imitating one particular aspect of fellow lefty James Paxton's dynamic success on Tuesday: A return to aggressiveness.
Happ and Paxton are very different pitchers, of course, and their similarities basically end with their handedness. Paxton is powerful, pounding a high-90s fastball and mixing in a low-90s cutter/slider. His knuckle curve grades way higher than any of Happ's offspeed stuff.
On Tuesday night, Paxton used that power to dominate Boston and turn the Yankees back into the team we expected to see coming out of spring training. He emerged with such a dynamic fastball that he and catcher Austin Romine decided to use just one curveball through the first five innings.
Then, as the lineup turned around for the third time, Paxton started mixing in his breaking ball. He struck out J.D. Martinez with it to end the sixth, and Steve Pearce to begin the seventh. He threw the curve a total of five times in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
"Early, because my fastball was so good, went with fastball/cutter," Paxton said. "Then we got them into swing mode, and they were trying to chase the heater … it just allowed me to bounce that breaking ball, or even throw it for a strike if we needed to. And they were so far out front, just thinking heater."
Going into the game, Paxton had only thrown that curve 15.6 percent of the time this year, down from 21.5 percent last season.
"I feel like I have to get over that hump of just trying to place it in there, and just let it fly," he said.
That quote was about his curveball, but it could have related to the mental adjustment he made between his bad start in Houston and this one. Paxton had been nervous, tentative, and less aggressive than last season. The magnitude of being a Yankee proved more onerous than he expected.
His usual between-starts chat with a sports psychologist helped to center him again, and remind him to go back on attack mode. He also decided to embrace the challenge of being the Yankee ace in a big game against the Red Sox.
Many athletes will verbally downplay the importance of hyped games or series, sticking instead with the "one day at a time" cliche. Yankees manager Aaron Boone sets this tone for his team. But Paxton decided not to shy from it.
"It's a big deal because it's against Boston, especially being here, we want to beat Boston every time," he said. "And it was a big start for me, just to get my feet under me and show myself that I can be here and do this."
At one point after the game, as Paxton stood at his locker with a small group of reporters, I said, "It looks like you're enjoying the moment -- Yankees, Red Sox, Yankee Stadium."
"Yeah, absolutely," he said, smiling. "It was awesome. It was a great experience. I just enjoyed the intensity of it."
Sonny Gray, he is not. Paxton is clearly an athlete eager for a big stage; he just needed to remind himself of it.
As Paxton spoke, Happ was a few feet away, quietly dressing at his locker and heading home. His moment comes tonight, and while there's not much he can take away from the way that Paxton deployed his repertoire, he can emulate the underlying mindset.
If he does attack the Red Sox like he has so many times in his career -- the Yankees acquired Happ last season in part because of his longstanding success against Boston -- he can continue the reinvigoration of a team that seemed suddenly crisp on Tuesday, when James Paxton went into attack mode.