Anxiety, uncertainty surround Halladay's first start

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Anxiety, uncertainty surround Halladay's first start

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.

MLB Notes: Tigers star Miguel Cabrera could return soon from back stiffness

MLB Notes: Tigers star Miguel Cabrera could return soon from back stiffness

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera could soon return to the lineup after being sidelined by back stiffness.

Cabrera has been out since leaving the Dominican Republic's game last Saturday in the World Baseball Classic.

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said Cabrera might play Friday against Atlanta.

"Just not going to rush it," Ausmus said before Wednesday's game against Toronto. "There's no reason to rush it. He's got plenty of at-bats. We'll see how he is on Friday."

Cabrera hit .316 with 38 homers and 108 RBIs last season.

Outfielder J.D. Martinez, who sprained his right foot making a shoestring catch Saturday, is scheduled to be re-examined Friday.

Martinez hit .307 last year with 22 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Blue Jays: Bautista says he is over lower back stiffness
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista says the lower back stiffness that prevented him from playing for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic last weekend is no longer an issue.

Bautista was in the original lineup for Wednesday's spring training game against Detroit. But with an off-day Thursday, it was determined to have him play Friday instead.

"I'm feeling great," Bautista said. "I talked to the staff and it makes no sense to just kind of crank it up. Just take a day off."

Bautista is hopeful that his strong start, hitting .563 with two homers and six RBIs in six games before leaving for the WBC, will continue.

"I'm seeing the ball well and feeling good at the plate," Bautista said. "Just excited to be back in the swing of things with the guys, and looking forward to getting ready for the season” (see full story).

Twins: May has Tommy John surgery
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins right-hander Trevor May has undergone Tommy John elbow surgery that will keep him off the mound this season.

The Twins announced on Wednesday that the replacement of May's torn ulnar collateral ligament was successful. The 27-year-old was transitioning back to starting, following a move to the bullpen halfway through the 2015 season.

With May's injury and their release on Tuesday of veteran right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, the Twins are down to Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey and Adalberto Mejia in the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation.

May was placed on the 60-day disabled list, making room for the Twins to add left-hander Craig Breslow to the 40-man roster. The 36-year-old Breslow is among the finalists for a middle relief role.

Cardinals: Martinez to pitch on opening night
JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals have picked Carlos Martinez to start on opening night against the World Series champion Chicago Cubs.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Martinez about the choice before he pitched Wednesday in an exhibition game against Washington.

The Cardinals host the NL Central rival Cubs on April 2.

Adam Wainwright had started the past four openers for the Cardinals. Matheny said Wainwright took the news well about Martinez getting the assignment this year.

The 25-year-old Martinez was an All-Star in 2015. He went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year.

Yankees 7, Phillies 3: Long balls hurt Vince Velasquez; Daniel Nava auditions at first base

Yankees 7, Phillies 3: Long balls hurt Vince Velasquez; Daniel Nava auditions at first base

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Pete Mackanin got right to the point after this one.

"Well, I wish Joe Girardi didn't bring Bird along," he said after the Phillies' 7-3 loss to the Yankees. "It would have been a different ballgame if he didn't show up."

Mackanin was referring to Greg Bird, the Yankees first baseman and owner of a sweet lefty swing that has produced six home runs this spring, including a pair on Wednesday.

Both of the home runs came on down-and-in fastballs from Vince Velasquez. On one of them, Velasquez missed his spot badly.

"Velasquez pitched better than what he gave up," Mackanin said. "He had a good fastball. He got his pitch count up and he got through six innings. We're happy about that."

Velasquez lines up to pitch the home opener on April 7.

Nava auditions at first 
Daniel Nava, fighting to make the club as a non-roster player, played the entire game at first base. He had a walk, drove in a run and made a nifty play with the glove at first.

The Phillies have a serious roster crunch. If Andrew Knapp makes the club as the backup catcher -- a strong possibility because he is already on the 40-man roster -- then Nava could be battling with Chris Coghlan and Brock Stassi for one of the final two spots on the bench. Nava and Stassi are similar in that they both play first base and outfield, so it could come down to one or the other. Both have swung the bat well this spring (see 25-man roster projection).

"I could go out there and do everything right and they could go in a different direction, and I could do everything wrong and they could want me," Nava said. "I've been in this spot numerous times so I'm just trying to control things that I can control. That's a classic cliché or phrase, but there's a reason it's a phrase because there's a lot of truth to it. I just don't look into that stuff because it's out of my control.

"They could go a lot of different ways and that's actually good because it's so far out of your control you can't worry about it.

"We have a bunch of guys here who are good players. We'll see what happens."

Up next
The Phillies host the Twins on Thursday (1:05 p.m./TCN). Aaron Nola will start.