ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Toronto Blue Jays will continue their playoff quest behind their accidental ace when they start a four-game series against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night at Angel Stadium.
Left-hander J.A. Happ (18-4, 3.33 ERA) will take the mound for the Blue Jays, who enter the game in the thick of the race for both the American League East championship and a wild-card spot.
Toronto trails the first-place Boston Red Sox by two games in the division and is one game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the top wild-card position. At the same time, the Blue Jays are trying to repel the Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, all of whom lie within two games of the second wild card.
Entering this year, Happ owned a career record of 62-61. His best season came in 2009, when he went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA and two shutouts for the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the National League pennant. Since then, however, Happ was traded four times in the next six seasons and compiled a 42-54 record through last year's trading deadline, when the Seattle Mariners sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Joining the Pirates provided the impetus for Happ's resurgence.
Once pitching coach Ray Searage adjusted his delivery, Happ went 7-2, forged a 1.85 ERA and struck out 69 batters in 63 1/3 innings while issuing just 13 walks. That performance motivated the Blue Jays to sign the left-handed free agent in November to a three-year contract worth $36 million.
The 33-year-old veteran not only provided the stability that the Blue Jays' rotation needed once David Price signed a free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox, but he also is making his own case to win the Cy Young Award.
Happ won 11 consecutive decisions from June 11 to Aug. 17. He ranks second in the American League with a career-best 18 victories while sharing 10th place in ERA. The left-hander also is holding opposing batters to a .235 average, and he needs just three strikeouts to set a career high in that category.
"The thing I'm most satisfied and happy with is that I feel the hard work is paying off, getting to a place mentally where I feel comfortable," Happ told the Globe and Mail. "I may have pressed a little bit more than I do now. When you press, all of a sudden you're trying to be too perfect and you're down 2-0 to the batter and you're not making your pitches."
One factor in Happ's ability to maintain his perspective is his newborn son, J.J.
"Honestly, I had my first child this offseason," the left-hander told the Globe and Mail. "I go home and instead of being selfish and worrying about me and moping and being upset, I get to see his face and it changes everything."
The Angels will counter with right-hander Daniel Wright, who seeks his first major league victory. He will make his second start since being acquired off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 4.
In his only previous appearance with Los Angeles, Wright allowed four runs on six hits, including two home runs, in five innings but received no decision Saturday night in the Angels' 8-5 loss to the Texas Rangers. The 25-year-old rookie also hit two batters, walked one and struck out two.
"He really showed the ability to spin the ball," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think his fastball's sneaky. He got into some good spots. And really, the first pitch of the game, (Carlos) Gomez just ambushes him (for a homer), and then he hung a slider later."
Wright, 25, went 0-2 with a 7.62 ERA in four games (two starts) for the Reds this year to begin his big-league career. He will be facing Toronto for the first time.
Happ opposed the Angels once this year, allowing four runs in five innings during a 6-3 home loss on Aug. 25. The defeat continued his career-long trend: He is 0-5 with a 7.83 ERA in five starts against the Angels.