J.A. Happ's late rise shows Phillies are right to keep pitching options open

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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ.

DUNEDIN, Fla. - There's a game that J.A. Happ pitched for the Phillies that he will never forget. Happ got a World Series ring with them in 2008 and pitched for them in the 2009 World Series, and those moments were great, but the game that stands out happened on Aug. 5, 2009. Happ threw a four-hit shutout that day against the Colorado Rockies, striking out 10, including Troy Tulowitzki, who is now one of his teammates on the Toronto Blue Jays. One of the reasons that Happ doesn't forget that game is that Tulowitzki doesn't let him.

"Tulo still tries to give me crap about it," Happ said here Thursday after throwing two scoreless innings in the Phils-Jays 8-8 tie, "because I think he was the last out."

He was, and Happ struck him out on three pitches. It was the apex of Happ's only full season with the Phillies, when he went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA and finished second in the voting for National League rookie of the year. But it isn't the peak of his career. He reached that point only in the last two years, and his late emergence as a 20-game winner and Cy Young contender with the Blue Jays serves as an interesting cautionary tale for the Phillies as they hoard starting pitchers, most of them young, to keep their rotation stocked for years to come.

It's not that the Phillies are wrong to collect as many promising starters as possible. On the contrary, Happ's career arc demonstrates why the Phillies' strategy is smart, because the timing and nature of a pitcher's success can be so unpredictable - a new pitch, a new delivery, a new approach, a new place. So you sign Jeremy Hellickson and trade for Clay Buchholz and wait to see who among that stable of arms - Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, Vince Velazquez, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher - rises and falls.

"The problem with our job is we basically have to become fortune tellers, and that's very difficult," said Phillies manager Pete Mackanin, who was the team's bench coach during Happ's tenure with the Phils. "You never know what's going to happen. You see it a lot where a relief pitcher doesn't do well. He goes someplace else and, depending on how he's used, does well. It's hard to be a fortune teller, and you're only allowed so much time to give a guy an opportunity."

The final grain of sand slipped through Happ's hourglass with the Phillies before that '09 season was finished. With Cole Hamels struggling and the team in need of pitching depth, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. acquired Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. When Happ failed to pitch beyond the sixth inning in his final four starts of the regular season, manager Charlie Manuel put his trust in Martinez. Happ started one game in the divisional series against the Rockies, then didn't pitch again until he got two outs in relief in Game 6 of the World Series against the Yankees.

Had the Phillies been rebuilding then, as they are now, they might have given Happ more rope. Instead, they included him in a trade the following year to acquire Roy Oswalt. It was a natural move for a franchise that was ready to win again, and the risk that Happ might develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter somewhere else was worth taking. "I liked him, but he was up in the zone a lot," Mackanin said. "You never know what's going to happen to a guy. . . . Some guys figure it out, and some guys don't."

Happ didn't until 2014, as he was nearing the end of his first stint with the Blue Jays. From 2011 through that season, his record was 32-44, his ERA 4.75, his walks-and-hits-per-innings-pitched 1.432. He was nothing special, and he knew it, and he pulled aside Pete Walker, then Toronto's pitching coach, for a talk.

"I said, 'Pete, I'm looking at these other guys, and they're really excellent pitchers, and I feel like that's where I should be,' " Happ said. "I just felt like I needed to get that consistency, whether it was physically, mentally, whatever. I had to overcome some stuff, get out of my own way a little bit."

At Walker's recommendations, Happ tweaked his windup. He lowered his arm angle, which helped him keep the ball down in the strike zone. He stood more erect on the mound and lowered his leg kick. He was traded twice more - from the Blue Jays to the Seattle Mariners, from the Mariners to the Pittsburgh Pirates - before everything clicked for him. Over his last 44 regular-season starts, he is 27-6 with a 2.86 ERA, with 232 strikeouts in 258 1/3 innings.

He is 34. His fortune took a long time to reveal itself.

"I give people credit who had faith in me," he said. "I've had some up years and some down years, and it's nice to get the opportunity to keep trying to prove yourself. It wasn't always easy along the way. I had to fight for myself a lot as well. I think it just goes to show you're always learning, and there's something more you can always do, more knowledge you can use."

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski