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First-place perch Happ, Blue Jays sitting on top A.L. East

BALTIMORE — Toronto Blue Jay pitcher and St. Bede alumnus J.A. Happ never really went away, but he can easily be a top candidate for the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year award.

Thirteen months ago during a series against the Tampa Bay Rays, a micro-second changed Happ’s 2013 season. A Desmond Jennings laser-beam, line drive to the mound resulted in a head injury and sprained knee to the 2000-2001 Bureau County Republican Athlete of the Year.

Three months later, Happ returned to the same mound to win against the Rays, and now with the horrifying episode behind him, the lefty from Peru is an integral member of the American League East-leading Blue Jays pitching staff.

Since the start of June, Happ sports a 2-1 record as MLB’s Canadian team is besting the likes of the World Champion Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. On Sunday, in front of a sold-out crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Happ struck out six Orioles and allowed one run in six-plus innings of work to gain a 5-2 victory and a Father’s Day weekend series split with the Maryland birds.

“We’re coming together and playing some good baseball the last couple series. We’re right there,” Happ said Friday in Baltimore. “We’re in a good position; we just have to keep grinding it out.

“Everybody has ups and downs (during a season), but I think the good teams are the ones who can avoid the long dry spells, so we’re always trying to win a series,” he continued. “The last couple weeks, we’ve been doing that.”

As of June 17, Happ owns a 6-3 win-loss record and a 3.38 road earned run average.

“I feel good. I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be in this position,” Happ said. “I want to be a starting pitcher for these guys. I want to come up big when it counts. The journey’s been kind of crazy.”

Jennings’ line drive sent ultimately sent Happ to the 60-day disabled list, and many Illinois fans — and Jennings himself —inquired about his welfare.

“He (Jennings) wanted to see me a few days while we were still there (in St. Petersburg),” Happ said. “When I got out (of the hospital) and went back to the field, I was able to chat with him for a few minutes. Of course, none of that is intentional; he wanted to see if I was up and around and OK.

Many followers in the Bureau County and LaSalle County areas reached out to Happ after the incident, but the messages were more concerned about living a normal life – not rushing back to pitch.

“One thing that stood out was that outside of baseball, people were saying, ‘we’re really glad you’re OK, and, whenever you are ready and whenever you get right, we are looking forward to seeing you back.’”

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