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Happ feels better, but rotation spot not certain

After missing a few days due to sore back, lefty throws in Minor League game

Happ feels better, but rotation spot not certain

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- J.A. Happ is one of the most mild-mannered athletes in the game, but when it comes to his time with the Blue Jays, there always seems to be an element of drama.

It has nothing to do with Happ's personality, but in each of the past two years, he has been surrounded by controversy. Last season, it was the fact he entered Spring Training without a job despite having six years of experience at the big league level.

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This time around it's that Happ entered camp with a supposed guaranteed spot only to see his position called into question just a few weeks in. Recent comments by general manager Alex Anthopoulos about the possibility of two rotation spots being up for grabs certainly didn't sit well with the starting pitcher.

"I don't have any comment on that," Happ said on Friday afternoon. "My comment is no comment. That was probably disappointing to hear, but there's nothing I want to say about it."

The belief going into Spring Training was that the Blue Jays were going to start the year with R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and Happ in the rotation. There was going to a competition between Drew Hutchison, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond and Marcus Stroman for the final spot.

That stance changed when Happ had a pair of rough outings to start the spring. In his first start, Happ threw 37 pitches in one inning vs. the Phillies. The second time out, he was unable to get out of the first inning during a rough outing against Minnesota.

A few days after that March 3 start vs. the Twins, Anthopoulos held a media scrum with a group of reporters. He was full of praise for both Hutchison and Stroman, and that prompted some probing questions about Happ. Anthopoulos first talked about a back injury Happ had been dealing with, and he was then asked whether there were actually two jobs available this spring.

"There could be two," Anthopoulos said at the time. "I think we're going to take the best team north. Especially right now, we have J.A. and the back, the performance, things like that, we have to get him on track, stay healthy. Obviously R.A., Mark and Brandon [are in the rotation].

"Again, we expect J.A. to be in the rotation, but at the same time, the back's flared up on him twice. I just don't know. Look, if guys perform well and they force our hand, we'll take the best team."

Anthopoulos' comments received a lot of attention, and Happ was noticeably absent from camp the following two days. According to the Blue Jays, he was told to stay home in bed because of the sore back. The injury didn't last long, as Happ returned to the Blue Jays' facilities on Sunday and threw a side session two days later.

Happ's first game back came in a Minor League setting on Friday afternoon. He allowed one hit and a walk while striking out two over the course of three innings. Afterward, Happ said his back felt good and seemed to give the indication that the club was always more worried about his back than he was.

"I wanted to jump right back in, but they thought this was a good idea, and it turned out to be a good idea," Happ said of his brief absence to rest the injury. "I'm ready to go.

"I wasn't too far away. It was just something we need to take a step backward in order to go forward. We tried to take care of it with a few things, and I think it definitely helped."

So now the questions return to what needs to be done for Happ to secure his spot in the rotation. When manager John Gibbons was asked that after Friday afternoon's game vs. the Red Sox, he said: "We've got to make sure his back is healthy."

It would appear the two sides are at somewhat of a crossroads. Happ says his back is fine, and the club is taking a wait-and-see approach. Regardless of what happens with the injury, the one thing that would appear certain is that Happ is still going to have to earn his spot.

Hutchison now appears to be locked into the starting five, but that leaves one spot up for grabs with Happ, Rogers, Redmond, Stroman and left-hander Ricky Romero in the mix. There's barely two weeks remaining in Spring Training and the competition is as crowded as it was when camp opened on Feb. 16.

Despite the layoff, at least a pitch count won't be an issue as Happ looks to win that job.

"His arm's in shape," Gibbons said. "He had a couple of outings, so he's thrown some pitches. It wasn't a long-term thing. It was four or five days or whatever it was. If he hadn't been on the mound, it's different. If it kept him from throwing, it would have been different."

Whether the Blue Jays' projected starting rotation will be different by Opening Day is the part that still remains to be seen.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }