The Phillies' starting rotation has pitched extremely well this season, proof of which can be found in the team's 3.33 rotation ERA, which is the fifth best in baseball and the fourth best in the National League. Still, there is always a quest for more pitching and it is no secret the Phillies would not mind having a guy who threw from the opposite side of their five current starters.
It is also out there that one such lefthander could be available before the July 31 trade deadline, and isn't it a strange coincidence that it is the same one the Phillies used to restock their farm system at the trade deadline just three seasons ago? It would be quite the event to see Cole Hamels on the mound at Citizens Bank Park in a Phillies uniform again.
Even stranger is this: A second quality lefthander dealt by the Phillies at the deadline eight years ago could also be on the market come July, and J.A. Happ will be a worthwhile addition for any team hoping to reach the postseason. The Phillies, in fact, got a firsthand look at Happ during their 5-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday and, as usual, he beat them. Happ went 6 2/3 innings and allowed three runs – two earned – on six hits. He walked two and struck out eight. He improved to 7-3 this season and lowered his ERA to 3.84.
"I know people look at the game differently on rating wins, but I don't," Toronto manager John Gibbons said.
That's an old-school way of thinking and even though there are a lot of things beyond a pitcher's control that go into recording a victory, you have to be really good to get 20 of them in a season as Happ did two years ago. After improving to 5-0 with a 1.45 ERA in five career starts against the Phillies, Happ was asked if he thought he was nearing the form he displayed in 2016 when he finished sixth in the American League Cy Young voting.
"I feel like it's similar," he said. "I don't feel like it's dissimilar from last year, which I felt like was a strong year."
Happ, at 35, is a little more than a year older than Hamels. But the Phillies' third-round pick from the 2004 draft out of Northwestern University is aging well. Over the last four seasons, he is 48-26 with a 3.47 ERA. Over that same stretch, Hamels is 42-24 with a 3.68 ERA.
"He's hitting on another good year," Gibbons said. "He's old reliable. He doesn't say a whole lot. He just goes out there and does his job. There's not a lot of fanfare, but he can pitch. That's the bottom line. He's a big, strong guy and he can maintain it and there's no telling where we're at right now without him."
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Quiet and reliable. That sounds like the same 27-year-old who left the Phillies for Houston when the Phillies acquired Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline in 2010. Happ went 14-5 with a 3.11 ERA in parts of four seasons with the Phillies, and in 2009 — his one full season – he went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA and was runner-up for National League rookie of the year.
"I'll never forget it," Happ said of his time with the Phillies, which included eight appearances during the 2008 and 2009 postseasons. "I'll always say that these were some of my best memories no matter what happens for the rest of my career. We went to a couple of World Series. It seems like yesterday. I can remember pretty much everything that happened."
It was not yesterday, but the Phillies have finally reached a point where they can worry about tomorrow again instead of just thinking about next year. Happ, perhaps even as much as Hamels, is an arm who could help them get back to the postseason.
In addition to that 5-0 record against the Phillies, Happ is also 14-4 with a 3.29 ERA against the four other teams in the National League East. Those are the teams the Phillies will play 37 times in 55 games after the July 31 trade deadline.
Happ is a free agent after this season, and the Blue Jays left Philadelphia three games under .500. Playing in the same division as Boston and the Yankees, it appears the best the Jays can hope for this season is a playoff berth as the second wild card. Even that, however, seems like a long shot for a team with a 4.56 ERA that ranks 24th in baseball. So why not bring Happ back to Philadelphia?
"I know that stuff is going to happen and those rumors will be out there at some point potentially, but I don't pitch with that in the back of my head," Happ said.
That's the perfect answer from a pitcher who has been a lot better than most people realize.