Chase Utley was called out on this play at the plate during the eighth inning of the Phillies' 3-2 loss to the Nationals. (AP)
It was just three years ago that Roy Halladay pitched a playoff no-hitter at Citizens Bank Park, just two years ago that he allowed only one run in eight innings in a heartbreaking playoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Halladay is such a different pitcher, such a different physical specimen now.
Back then, he carved up hitters with a lively fastball that he could cut or sink away from the barrel of a bat. When he stood on the mound, he looked like the baddest man in town, his shoulders broad, his neck strong.
The life on Halladay’s fastball is gone now, maybe never to return. Physically, he no longer looks like the baddest man in town. He is thinner. Truth be told, he looks gaunt. Where once his uniform top fit snugly over his strong shoulders, it now appears to hang off him as if it belongs to his big brother.
The difference in Halladay from then to now was never more apparent than Wednesday night when the 36-year-old right-hander, once noted for his surgeon-like control, allowed five of the first 10 batters he faced to reach base on four walks and a hit batter.
It was very un-Halladay-like.
But while Halladay’s fastball has waned, his competitive drive has not. With lackluster stuff, he bobbed and weaved his way through six innings and actually left with a one-run lead only to see the bullpen let it get away in the Phillies’ 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals (see Instant Replay).
Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman homered against Zach Miner to tie the game in the seventh and Jake Diekman saw his run of 10 straight scoreless outings go up in smoke as the Nats turned his four-pitch walk to Wilson Ramos into the go-ahead run in the eighth.
The Nationals made a couple of outstanding defensive plays in the seventh and eighth innings to put the game away, and, yes, interim manager Ryne Sandberg did sound a lot like Charlie Manuel when he said, “We had our chances …” Phillies hitters were just 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position.
With the Phillies long out of the race, the final outcome doesn’t matter a whole lot these days. There are other storylines to follow and every fifth day, the storyline is Halladay.
Can he be effective enough to resemble the old Doc again? Will he be effective enough to tempt the Phillies to offer him a contract extension?
Halladay has four more starts to impress the Phillies' brass. While he impressed with his guts and perseverance on Wednesday, he did not with his actual pitching. In six innings, he walked five (one intentionally) and hit two batters. He gave up just one run but it could have been worse hadn’t he gotten a pair of inning-ending ground balls with the bases loaded. One was a double play that ended the top of the first. Halladay walked three in the inning and threw 29 pitches, 15 of which were balls.
“He had a rough start command-wise,” Sandberg said. “But he was able to minimize damage.”
Washington manager Davey Johnson did Halladay a favor by not pinch-hitting for pitcher Jordan Zimmermann with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth. Halladay got Zimmermann on a comebacker.
“I was feeling sorry for him the first couple of innings,” Johnson said of Halladay. “Then I was hating him as he went along because he got better.”
Halladay got better in the third, fourth and fifth innings because he started featuring his curveball and changeup. Unable to command his fastball and carve up hitters with it the way he used to, Halladay began tricking them a la Jamie Moyer. While Halladay believes his fastball will improve -- he was in the high 80s in this game -- he has mentioned that he might have to become more of a finesse guy like Moyer. In this game, he offered glimpses of that and the Nats’ hitters helped him by chasing.
Halladay has revamped his mechanics and he’s still trying to get comfortable with those changes. He blamed his early control problems on that.
“This is still a little like spring training for me,” said Halladay, who has now made three big-league starts since returning from the disabled list. “I’m dealing with different mechanics than I had before, a different arm slot. It took me a little bit to feel the right balance of everything. That’s going to be a little bit of a battle at times.”
Halladay said his switch to more soft stuff after his first time through the lineup was more game plan than trying to avoid throwing his fastball.
“Looking at video, they have a lot of guys looking for fastballs,” Halladay said. “They can feast if you get behind in the count and throw a lot of fastballs. When I got behind in counts I didn’t want to give away hits, so we went soft.”
That pitching style produced some results, if not style points, for Halladay on Wednesday night. But can it do so consistently? Can Halladay continue to afford such poor control and keep his team in games? Time will tell.