Anxiety, uncertainty surround Halladay's first start

Anxiety, uncertainty surround Halladay's first start

April 2, 2013, 9:00 pm
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Roy Halladay gave up 21 hits and 11 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings for a 6.06 ERA in six starts this spring. (USA Today Images)

ATLANTA -- There was a time when Roy Halladay’s starts were some of the most exciting, most eagerly anticipated events in a Phillies season.

Who knows? Maybe they will be again someday.

But for now, all that surrounds Halladay’s first start of 2013 Wednesday night at Turner Field is anxiety and uncertainty.

The classy, two-time Cy Young Award winner and perfect game author is a different pitcher than he was during his prime in Toronto, a different pitcher than he was his first two seasons in Philadelphia when he combined for 40 wins and a 2.40 ERA.

Halladay’s transition from pitching wizard to muggle began last season when he was plagued by injury, a flagging fastball and ineffectiveness.

He had hoped a winter of hard work and a return to good health would put the zip and bite back on his pitches this spring, but all a month’s worth of Grapefruit League starts did is raise more questions.

So nobody is quite sure what to expect from Halladay on Wednesday night.

Will he provide the hint of encouragement that team officials have been waiting for?

Or will he continue to look like a pitcher in serious decline?

On Monday, manager Charlie Manuel was asked about his expectations for Halladay and his hedging answer was indicative of the uncertainty surrounding this start in particular and Halladay’s future in general.

“I think he’s going to be OK,” Manuel said. “I think he’s going to be fine, and, of course, I’m hoping he’s going to be OK. I’m a little concerned about it, but I wouldn’t say I’m overly concerned because I think he’ll eventually get it going and have a big season.

“I think he’s ready to pitch and (pitching coach Rich) Dubee thinks he’s ready. Roy thinks he’s ready to pitch and the doctors think he’s ready. We’re going to see where he’s at. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you how he’s going to do. If I could tell you, he’d throw a no-hitter and strike out 15.”

It’s important to note: Halladay says he is completely healthy. As a matter of fact, he says he feels better physically coming out of this spring training than he has any of the last five years. He says his back feels good. He says his shoulder feels good.

Despite this good health, Halladay had a brutal spring. His velocity lagged -- as it did last spring and season. His location -- control within control -- was poor. He appeared to have trouble keeping the ball down and was hit hard. In six official spring starts, he gave up 21 hits and 11 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings for a 6.06 ERA.

The pitcher’s struggles might just be as simple as this: He turns 36 in May and has thrown over 3,300 innings as a professional. Wear and tear might be just taking its toll.

Halladay acknowledged that he is not the same pitcher he was in his prime. He knows his velocity has dropped. He thinks he can win with good preparation, command, competitiveness and overall pitching knowledge.

Time will tell if he can.

Dubee remains Halladay’s biggest supporter and enforcer of positive vibes.

“This guy's still got plenty of ability, believe me, and he's got the utmost character on the mound,” Dubee said. “He's a winner. He may not have the same bullets, but he’s still going to be able to pitch us quality games and win ballgames for us."

Halladay will be going for his 200th regular-season win Wednesday night.

It won’t be easy -- and not just because of what we saw in spring training.

The opponent will be difficult.

The Atlanta Braves bruised Halladay for 30 hits, including six homers, and 22 runs in 17 2/3 innings (11.21 ER) over four starts last season. In their minds, Halladay is no longer invincible and that’s an important part of the equation because mental edge means a lot in the one-on-one, pitcher-hitter matchup.

Halladay’s waning velocity makes it imperative that he locate the ball with precision and keep it out of the heart of the plate without falling behind in counts. That was difficult for him in spring training and it was difficult for Cole Hamels against the Braves on Monday night. Hamels made mistakes over the plate and was tagged for three homers, two doubles and an opening day loss.

If Halladay makes similar mistakes over the plate against the Braves’ potent lineup, it could be a short night for him and a long night for the entire Phillies organization as questions about the pitcher’s long-term effectiveness rise anew.

If he’s precise with his location and gives the Phillies a chance to win, the concerns will dissipate, at least temporarily.

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