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: Phillies load up with righties vs. White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon

Tonight's lineup: Phillies load up with righties vs. White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon

The Phillies are loading up with right-handed hitters for Tuesday's series opener at U.S. Cellular Field against White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon.

Odubel Herrera is out of the lineup and Aaron Altherr takes his place in center field. Peter Bourjos and Tyler Goeddel are in the outfield corners. 

Carlos Ruiz serves as the designated hitter against Rodon, who has huge platoon splits. Righties have hit .305/.365/.484 against Rodon; lefties have hit .220/.268/.286.

Rodon has a changeup to stave off right-handed hitters, but he's used it only eight percent of the time this season. He's thrown his 94 mph fastball, sinker or slider with 92 percent frequency (see game notes).

Emmanuel Burris gets a start at second base.

Ryan Howard is out of the lineup. U.S. Cellular Field is the only active stadium in which he's never played. The Phillies haven't been there since 2004.

1. Peter Bourjos, RF
2. Aaron Altherr, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Carlos Ruiz, DH
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Tyler Goeddel, LF
9. Emmanuel Burris, 2B

Suspended Phillies pitcher Alec Asher to begin rehab assignment

Suspended Phillies pitcher Alec Asher to begin rehab assignment

Phillies right-handed starting pitcher Alec Asher, who was suspended 80 games in late May for PEDs, will begin a rehab assignment Tuesday in the Gulf Coast League.

Asher, 24, was 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA in four starts with Triple A Lehigh Valley before the ban was handed down.

The Phillies will likely stretch him back out and get a look at him again in September. They've dealt with various injuries to starting pitchers, including Aaron Nola (elbow) and Zach Eflin (knees, foot). Plus, there's the possibility Vince Velasquez is shut down at some point in September. He is five innings shy of matching his career high. That could open up a spot in the rotation for Asher.

Asher debuted with the Phils last Aug. 30 after being acquired from the Rangers in the Cole Hamels trade. He went 0-6 with a 9.31 ERA in seven starts last season but pitched well in the minors early this year thanks to the addition of a two-seam fastball.

Phillies-White Sox 5 things: First trip to Chicago's South Side since 2004

Phillies-White Sox 5 things: First trip to Chicago's South Side since 2004

Phillies (58-67) at White Sox (59-64)
8:10 p.m. on CSN

After going 2-4 on a six-game homestand against the Dodgers and Cardinals, the Phillies visit the White Sox for a brief two-game series. Rarely does interleague play take the Phils to the South Side of Chicago. 

How rarely?

1. The last time ...
The last time the Phillies were in Chicago to take on the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field was 2004. 

The series was so long ago that Ryan Howard hadn't yet made his major-league debut. Chase Utley was still a part-time player. Carlos Ruiz was wrapping up his first full season at Double A.

It was so long ago that Ricky Ledee, Tomas Perez and Doug Glanville were in the Phillies' lineup, and Frank Thomas was the White Sox DH. 

Since interleague play began in 1997, the only other park the Phillies have visited as sparingly as U.S. Cellular Field is Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The Phils are 1-2 at both AL Central fields. 

At the beginning of the season it looked like this would be another reunion for the Phils and Jimmy Rollins, but the shortstop was designated for assignment by the White Sox after hitting .221 through 41 games.

2. Thompson's turn
Jake Thompson makes his fourth big-league start after going 1-2 with a 8.79 ERA in his first three. 

It's been a true struggle so far for Thompson, who has allowed 14 runs in 14⅓ innings on 14 hits and nine walks. He's walked multiple batters each game, and so far just 57.5 percent of his pitches have been strikes. 

Thompson keeps falling behind hitters with men on base, which is a recipe for disaster. It just seems like he's not finishing pitches out of the stretch. Or maybe he's tried too hard to evade solid contact and has nibbled instead. Whatever the case, it hasn't worked and Thompson will need to fix it to figure out what kind of pitcher he needs to be in the majors. 

Thompson had a 1.21 ERA in his final 11 starts at Triple A. The talent is there. The execution just hasn't been. A lot of times, young pitchers come up and struggle before figuring it out. The early successes of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and even Zach Eflin (after his first start) may cause you to forget that.

3. The book on Rodon
The Phillies for the first time face 23-year-old White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon, who was drafted third overall in 2014, four picks ahead of Nola.

Rodon is one of the only players in that entire draft who made it to the majors faster than Nola. He came up last season and went 9-6 with a 3.75 ERA for the White Sox, striking out 139 batters in 139⅓ innings but walking 71. 

This season, Rodon is 3-8 with a 4.26 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 20 starts. It's been a rocky season, but he's been much better of late. Rodon missed almost all of July with a sprained wrist he suffered falling down the dugout steps. He's returned to pitch well in August, giving up four earned runs in 18 innings.

Rodon's control has improved significantly this season — he's walked 3.0 batters per nine innings after walking 4.6 as a rookie.

Rodon is a four-pitch pitcher with a four-seam fastball and sinker that average 94 mph, a slider at 87 and a changeup at 84. He throws the changeup just eight percent of the time.

Right-handed hitters have pounded Rodon this season, hitting .305/.365/.484. Lefties have hit just .220/.268/.286. Expect to see Tommy Joseph at first base and perhaps Tyler Goeddel in the outfield.

4. Scouting the Sox
The White Sox got off to a fast start this season, going 23-10 through May 9. They're 18 games under .500 since.

That early-season surge was built on timely offense and lights-out work from the bullpen. It probably inflated expectations for what is really just an average American League team.

Leadoff man Adam Eaton and veteran outfielder Melky Cabrera have had solid years for the Sox. Eaton has hit .276 with a .357 OBP and 37 extra-base hits. Cabrera has hit .295 with a .778 OPS.

The White Sox needed and still need more out of Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier, though. Abreu is hitting a respectable .283/.338/.447 but has just 16 home runs. And that's with Abreu heating up this month, hitting .361 with five homers. The big Cuban slugger has declined in each of his three seasons in the majors, his OPS dropping from .964 to .849 to .785. He hit 36 homers as a rookie and 30 last season.

Frazier, per usual, has hit for power with 31 homers and 76 RBIs. But he's hitting just .212 with a .295 on-base percentage, and those 31 homers account for one-third of his hits. He's also striking out a lot, on pace for 160.

The White Sox are too top-heavy a team. Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are a solid one-two punch atop the rotation. On paper, Abreu and Frazier should be a productive middle-of-the-order pairing. Eaton and Cabrera are adequate table-setters. And high-priced closer David Robertson still has great stuff. But the formula just hasn't led to wins in 2016.

5. This and that
• This is the only week the rest of the season the Phillies have two off days (Monday and Thursday).

• The Phils face the White Sox in another two-game series Sept. 20-21 at Citizens Bank Park.

• The Phillies have the fifth-best interleague record in the NL this season at 8-8. 

• The Phils are 14-14 against left-handed starting pitchers.