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.

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera moved down in the lineup again

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera moved down in the lineup again

After going 1 for 4 on Friday night, Odubel Herrera finds himself further down in the Phillies' lineup.

Herrera falls to seventh in the order while the Phils go for their third straight win facing the Diamondbacks at Chase Field Saturday night (10:10/TCN and CSNPhilly.com). The centerfielder has hit well over his last five games (8 for 22 with two doubles), but he's made multiple baserunning miscues that have hurt the team. 

This will be the second time Herrera has started batting seventh this season. He batted sixth in Friday's win. Andres Blanco moves up a spot to replace him in the six-hole while the rest of the lineup remains the same facing another lefty starter in Robbie Ray. Blanco was a late addition to last night's lineup after Howie Kendrick was scratched with hamstring tightness. 

Rookie Cameron Perkins leads off while Freddy Galvis, fresh off a 2-for-5 night, bats second. Cameron Rupp remains behind the plate for Ben Lively, who makes his fifth career start.

Here's the full lineup that will face Ray on Saturday:

1. Cameron Perkins, LF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Aaron Altherr, RF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Maikel Franco, 3B
6. Andres Blanco, 2B
7. Odubel Herrera, CF
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Ben Lively, P

And here's the Diamondbacks nine that will take on Lively: 

1. Gregor Blanco, CF
2. David Peralta, RF
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Jake Lamb, 3B
5. Chris Owings, SS
6. Brandon Drury, 2B
7. Daniel Descalso, LF
8. Chris Herrmann, C
9. Robbie Ray, P

For more on tonight's game, check out Steven Tydings' preview

Phillies-Diamondbacks 5 things: Nothing but quality from Ben Lively?

Phillies-Diamondbacks 5 things: Nothing but quality from Ben Lively?

Phillies (24-48) at Diamondbacks (46-28)
10:10 p.m. on TCN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies, believe it or not, bring a two-game winning streak into Saturday night. Seriously! Led by six strong innings from Mark Leiter Jr., the Phillies beat the Diamondbacks, 6-1, Friday, picking up their first win over the D-backs this season. Can Ben Lively make it three straight or will Robbie Ray turn out the lights on the Phillies offense?

Here are five things to know for late Saturday night:

1. High quality
In tonight's start, Lively has the opportunity to become the first Phillie since 1943 to begin his career with five quality starts. His first four starts have made him the most reliable starter in the Phils' rotation despite the team's 1-3 record in those appearances.

Better yet for Lively, he's coming off a strong start against these very same D-backs. It was a rocky beginning for the 25-year-old righty. He gave up two home runs within the first five batters he faced and ceded a 3-0 lead to his opposition. Plenty of pitchers — see the rest of the staff this season — would have folded after such a lackluster start. But Lively had some moxie in him. 

He gave up just four hits over his last five innings. He worked his way out of a third-and-first, no-out jam. And he finished his afternoon with a 1-2-3 inning. You would never have guessed watching the first inning that he'd actually leave in line for the win.

Lively also began to actually strike people out. That was his main bugaboo in his first few starts. With just 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings, one would predict he'd sport a higher ERA. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 4.88, a run and a half higher than his 3.33 ERA. Maybe Chase Field will be his Waterloo, but Citizens Bank Park could have easily played a similar role.

A side-note, but Lively's nickname is Bee-bo. I don't know what we should do with that, but it is worth mentioning. I'm sure that will help explain his results tonight, good or bad.

2. Ray of Ks
While the Phillies offense has looked pedestrian at times this year, they got to the hottest pitcher in baseball Sunday. 

Ray came into Sunday with some downright filthy numbers over his previous five games: He was 5-0 with a 0.24 ERA, allowing just one run over 37 innings. He struck out 48 batters in that span and allowed just 24 baserunners, including just 14 hits. Batters hit just .115/.182/.164 against him. 

The Phils? Well, they broke out the bats and got to him on a hot afternoon at CBP. They produced 12 baserunners (eight hits, four walks) and four runs, smacking two solo homers against the 25-year-old lefty. He lasted just 5 1/3 innings, his shortest outing since May 14.

For the season, Ray is 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and 114 Ks in 87 2/3 innings. It's a far cry from his 4.90 ERA last season, although his strikeout rate is about the same. He walks more batters than ever (four per nine innings) but limits hits at a career-best rate, bringing his WHIP down to 1.141. 

As for a repertoire, Ray works off his mid-90s fastball, turning to his mid-80s slider and low-80s curveball for offspeed offerings. All three pitches have been effective this season, but his offspeed stuff has been particularly strong. 

3. Torey Lovullo and a real contender
When the baseball season began back in April, it was tough to see the Diamondbacks as legitimate contenders. At 69-93 in 2016, the team was just one game better than the worst record in the National League and they didn't make many appreciable changes to the roster. 

The main changes came up top: Mike Hazen was hired as the team's new general manager and Torey Lovullo came aboard as manager. Whatever magic they've brought with them has made a big impact as the team is within a game of the Dodgers for the NL West crown. Even better, they lead the NL wild-card chase and are nine games clear of a playoff spot. Sure, it's only June 24, but that's a nice place to be. 

The managerial role can be overrated in baseball. The skipper can be handed the blame for a team that isn't performing even when it is mostly due to a roster that can't get it done. But Lovullo seems to have this team working well. He had received rave reviews when he filled in for John Farrell in 2015. His short stint made him a top candidate for the position and Hazen, also a Red Sox alum, was able to pluck him from Boston.

And things have fallen in line in the desert. Zack Greinke has bounced back to form along with the rest of the rotation. The bullpen has looked pretty good since Fernando Rodney snapped into form after April. And their lineup, as Corey detailed yesterday, is a force with which to be reckoned. Having those three factors working for them — together with some aggressive baserunning — and D-backs have a real contending chance this year.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With his two-run shot in the ninth inning Friday, Tommy Joseph has hit home runs in back-to-back games for the second time this year (May 9-10 vs. the Mariners)

Diamondbacks: Shortstop Chris Owings has a nine-game hitting streak going after a single in the series opener. He had a home run off Lively on Sunday.

5. This and that
• This year is starting to look like last year, at least in how the Phillies are playing the D-backs. In 2016, they were swept at CBP before returning the favor at Chase Field. This year, a sweep at CBP before taking the first game in the desert. 

• As mentioned above, Arizona makes things happen on the basepaths. Going into this series, the team led baseball with 18.2 base running runs above average according to Fangraphs. The Phillies are 24th with -7.0 runs above average.

• Howie Kendrick, Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr all have home runs off Ray in their careers. Kendrick is 5 for 22 with two walks against the lefty. Odubel Herrera is 4 for 9. 

• Lively allowed homers to Owings and Paul Goldschmidt on Sunday. Brandon Drury went 2 for 2 with a double.