NEW YORK -- Clearly, pitching was on the New York Yankees' minds this trade season.
But so was something (or rather, someone) else -- the Boston Red Sox.
Two days after completing an inner-division trade with the Baltimore Orioles to land prized reliever Zach Britton, keeping him away from their interested rivals to the north, the Yankees pulled off another trade Thursday within the American League East.
This time they fortified their starting rotation with a now-former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher who has had experience and success pitching against the one team that currently stands between the Yankees and the division title. When the pennant chase hits its stride in the coming weeks, the Bronx Bombers will hand the ball every fifth day to J.A. Happ, a man quite familiar with Fenway Park.
In a career that has included stops in Philadelphia, Houston, Pittsburgh and Seattle, Happ has gone 7-4 with a 2.98 ERA against the Red Sox.
As the Yankees continue to chase Boston, that's perhaps the most attractive quality about their newest arm. It's one that made acquiring him all the more necessary.
"It certainly doesn't hurt," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
This season alone, Happ has a 0.84 ERA in two starts against the Red Sox. That includes a game in which he allowed five unearned runs, including four on a grand slam that followed an error, in a 6-4 loss earlier this month.
In this year's other outing against Boston, Happ allowed just one run across seven innings. He had 10 strikeouts that April day, one of two times he has recorded double-digit strikeouts this season.
"He's obviously a very crafty lefty that has had a lot of success," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He's got some swing and miss. He's navigated the landscape of this particular division already. So we know he's battle-tested."
Battle-tested also describes Britton, a 30-year-old southpaw with closing capabilities who was added to the bullpen this week. A third-round draft pick of the Orioles in 2006, he's a wily vet of the AL East.
Because of his experience pitching in a division that this year includes two of the best teams in baseball, Britton believes his transition to the Yankees' bullpen at this important juncture should go smoother than if the Yankees had traded for a reliever unfamiliar with the AL East's nuances.
"Somebody outside the division that comes in here and has to come into a high-leverage situation at Fenway, it's going to be tough for them," Britton said. "I've done it in all the cities: Toronto, Tampa, wherever it is. I've faced these guys a lot and have a lot of track record against them."
Like Happ, Britton has been strong against Boston. In 29 career games against the Red Sox as a reliever, he has struck out 34 while allowing just four earned runs. He also has posted a 1.01 ERA, his second-lowest versus teams he has made at least nine career relief appearances against.
Britton's only two lower ERA numbers in qualified appearances are the 0.00 marks he has in nine relief outings against Houston, and 10 against Cleveland. In addition to gearing up for a postseason push with the Red Sox, the Yankees also are getting ready for potential October showdowns with the potent offenses the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians possess.
Just as Happ's success against Boston was a very real reason to trade for him, so was Britton's against those other contenders.
Despite Boston's ever-widening lead, it still is well within the realm of possibility that the AL East race will come down to what happens at Fenway Park the final weekend of the regular season. That's when the Yankees and Red Sox close out their 10 remaining meetings.
Before New York gets to that final weekend, though, it has 16 more games against the surprisingly difficult-to-solve combo of Baltimore and Tampa Bay. The Rays, fresh off a series win over the Yankees earlier this week, entered Thursday night's action 18½ games out of first place in the division. The Orioles entered 41½ back.
As mediocre as both teams have been, the supposedly more dominant Yankees have not done well against them, compiling an 11-11 record. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have taken full advantage of the weaker opponents, beating the Rays and O's to a collective record of 19-6.
Why are these numbers important? Because Happ's inner-division experience also shows up when he's pitched against them.
In five starts versus Baltimore and Tampa Bay this season, Happ is 2-1 with a 1.57 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP. He also has struck out 28 batters in 28⅔ innings against them. Perhaps he won't just be a difference-maker against Boston down the stretch. Maybe he'll help with the Yankees' problem of solving their two unexpectedly tough foes.
Regardless, all the matchup-based numbers aside, the Yankees are pleased with their deals this week simply because they believe they have received a pair of quality pitchers.
"These are guys that are still really good and still really capable," Boone said. "As much as I love the experience and I love the fact that they've been there and done that in a lot of ways, their talent is the biggest reason why they're here and why we feel that they're so capable."