From Cold Weather to Clearwater

Abraham Rakov

Clearwater, Fla. —

Ayoung prospect was on the third mound in a row of seven.

Along with six other minor leaguers, he methodically worked through his everyday pitching regimen. As he threw, teammates talked while jogging around the outfield of the major league spring training complex.

As his last pitch popped in the catcher’s glove, J.A. Happ stepped down from the mound and was quickly replaced by the next up-and-comer trying to impress the myriad of coaches watching from behind.

Last year, as Northwestern’s ace, the then-junior pitcher was never replaced and was known as more than a young prospect. After finishing the season 6-3 with a 2.68 ERA and earning First-Team All-Big Ten honors, Happ chose to forgo his senior season with the Wildcats and play professional baseball.

Happ said when he chose to leave NU, he knew minor league baseball would be a challenge. But he couldn’t pass up an offer from the Philadelphia Phillies after being drafted by the organization last summer.

“(The Phillies are) going to take care of my last year of school,” Happ said, “so I’m always going to be able to go back and finish up my education. I wanted to jump at the opportunity when I could.”

While NU was enjoying a day off during its spring break trip to Florida, Happ was 45 miles away at the Phillies’ spring training center in Clearwater, Fla.

Happ was drafted in the third round of the Major League Baseball draft last season and is currently with the Phillies’ single-A affiliate, the Batavia Muckdogs.

NU coach Paul Stevens said he doesn’t try to talk juniors out of leaving college early and he believes Happ made the right choice.

“I think it was a great decision,” Stevens said. “That is what these kids aspire to do from when they’re little guys, and I think you have to go when you get the chance.”

While Happ could have been in the midst of two days off and gearing up for games against Dartmouth and Vermont, the 22-year old pitcher was working out in front of more than 10 coaches who watched his every move.

“We had four coaches at Northwestern,” Happ said. “Here we have about 40, so there’s a bunch of different guys to ask.”

Twenty days after appearing in his last collegiate start, a complete game shutout win against Michigan State, the 92nd pick in the draft signed a contract with the Phillies.

Happ had a couple of weeks off, then headed to the Gulf Coast League Phillies, the Phillies’ Rookie-League affiliate.

He said the intense traveling schedule was one of the hardest adjustments he had to make.

“It’s not easy to rest on the bus,” Happ said. “You can’t get comfortable. It’s not easy to eat as healthy as you’d like because you’re eating after the games at 11 o’clock at night, sometimes later than that even.”

The Peru, Ill., native, who is the only player in NU history to be named First-Team All-Big Ten three consecutive years, said another adjustment was dealing with the level of competition.

“Every team’s two best hitters in the Big Ten are going to be throughout the entire lineup here,” Happ said. “The competition is much better. Guys are quicker, guys are stronger and they have better plate discipline.”

Happ played the summer in Batavia, N.Y., for the Muckdogs and was 1-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 11 starts.

Phillies minor league pitching coordinator Gorman Heimueller has seen Happ since he signed in June. Heimueller said although he hasn’t worked with the pitcher much, he thinks Happ has a lot of talent.

“His biggest strength is his deception,” Heimueller said. “Hitters don’t seem to get a good look at the ball. He’s got a quick arm that allows him some deception. It’s one of the things that we find in a pitcher or have him work on, and he seems to be a natural at it.”

Happ returned home for two months after his first minor-league summer, where he had “about three days off.” He moved to Chicago in January so he could work out at NU.

Happ said he didn’t mind pitching almost non-stop from February to October.

“It’s not really fair to complain about playing baseball for a living,” Happ said. “Sometimes the days are long, but you kind of have to remember some of the other opportunities for careers.”

Batavia’s season starts June 21, and Happ will continue to work out until then. He said hopefully he will move up to “middle-A” Lakewood or “high-A” Clearwater by the end of the season.

“Then hopefully, if I do well, they’ll want to move me up through the system,” Happ said.

Although he isn’t expecting a move to the majors anytime soon — Happ said it usually takes players anywhere from three to eight years to make it through to the big leagues — he has already faced major-league competition.

Happ said he faced Phillies catcher Todd Pratt when Pratt was working out against the minor league teams.

“I got him to ground out,” Happ said. “But who knows what would happen out of 10 times.”

Reach Abe Rakov at [email protected]