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: Cody Asche starts in place of injured Roman Quinn

Tonight's lineup: Cody Asche starts in place of injured Roman Quinn

With Roman Quinn's season over with an oblique strain, Freddy Galvis moves up to second in the Phillies' lineup Wednesday night against the Braves.

Quinn's showing in the majors this month was a microcosm of his pro career to this point — he showed his speed with four steals and several infield hits, posted a .373 OBP in 69 plate appearances, but suffered another injury. Health has always been his roadblock.

With Quinn out, Cody Asche gets a start in left field against Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, who he's homered off of. The presence of Quinn and Aaron Altherr has limited Asche's playing time — he's started only three games since coming back from Triple A on Sept. 10.

Asche bats seventh, a spot ahead of Aaron Altherr, who is 7 for 52 (.135) in his last 18 games and has four extra-base hits in his last 133 plate appearances.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Cody Asche, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Adam Morgan, P

Matt Kemp, who sat last night, returns to the Braves' lineup.

1. Ender Inciarte, CF
2. Adonis Garcia, 3B
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Matt Kemp, LF
5. Tyler Flowers, C
6. Dansby Swanson, SS
7. Mallex Smith, RF
8. Daniel Castro, 2B
9. Mike Foltynewicz, P

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Ryan Howard's earned a job somewhere

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Ryan Howard's earned a job somewhere

Phillies (70-87) at Braves (64-92)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The last two games for the Phillies have been about as ugly as it gets. After losing 17-0 on Sunday, they blew a six-run lead Tuesday as the bullpen continued to stumble toward the finish line.

1. No relief in sight
Pete Mackanin was peeved after last night's game and rightfully so. His relievers have an 8.03 ERA this month. Who can he even trust at this point?

The Phils have used 12 different relievers this month and only three — David Hernandez, Michael Mariot and Joely Rodriguez — have an ERA below 4.76. And even Hernandez, who has a 1.08 ERA in September, has allowed 16 baserunners in 8⅓ innings. 

Hector Neris, who Mackanin was saving last night for a save situation, is the most trustworthy option in the current bullpen. He's gotten outs most of the year, posting a 2.53 ERA and 1.07 WHIP with 100 strikeouts in 78⅓ innings. But even he has struggled lately, allowing runs in five of his last 10 appearances and walking 10 batters in his last 10 innings.

The Phillies will have money to spend this offseason and even if they don't spend it on A-list names, they could allocate some of it toward relievers who have better stuff than this bunch. Excluding closers like Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon, the free-agent reliever class includes decent veteran options like Brad Ziegler, Sergio Romo, Jim Johnson, Neftali Feliz, Fernando Rodney, Joe Smith and Brett Cecil, among others.

Giving one of those guys $6-8 million wouldn't stunt anyone else's development.

2. Stay a while
With the way these relievers have been batted around the last two games — 20 earned runs allowed in eight innings — the Phillies badly need some length out of Adam Morgan tonight. He hasn't given it to them in his last two starts, going just 9⅓ innings combined because of high pitch counts.

Morgan has been pretty good lately, though. Since returning to the majors on Aug. 14, he's allowed more than three runs only once in eight starts. He has a 3.86 ERA over that span, and if you exclude his poor outing against the Mets on Aug. 26, it's 2.92.

Morgan has missed more bats lately than we're accustomed to seeing. He matched a career-high with eight strikeouts in his last start, five starts after K'ing eight Mets. He's induced 25 swinging strikes in his last two starts. Over his last six outings, Morgan has a swinging strike rate of 12 percent; the MLB average for starting pitchers is 9.5 percent.

Morgan has faced the Braves twice this season. Both games were in May and he pitched well in each of them, allowing one run over seven innings and two over six. 

Morgan's season numbers are still ugly (2-10, 5.57 ERA), but it's pretty clear he's been a different pitcher since learning a two-seam fastball and coming back to the majors. Whether that holds up long-term remains to be seen, but Morgan is the rare Phillies pitcher finishing 2016 better than he started it.

3. Piece of the action
Ryan Howard continues to produce in his final days with the Phillies. He hit a grand slam last night for his 24th homer of the season and third in his last five games. 

Howard has homered 12 times since the All-Star break, equaling his output from the first half. And look at his numbers since July 7, a span of 44 games and 136 plate appearances: .266/.331/.621, 13 homers, 31 RBIs. He's locked in.

Howard can still do damage against right-handed pitching. He has 23 homers off of them in 313 plate appearances. Over the last 11 seasons, the only other player in baseball with that many homers off righties in so few plate appearances was Mark Teixeira in 2015. 

You mean to tell me an American League team can't use him next season in a role that only accentuates his strengths and mitigates his weaknesses?

Howard will play again tonight and likely in all of five of the Phils' remaining games. He's 3 for 4 with a homer off tonight's opponent, Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz.

4. Scouting Folty
Foltynewicz, a power-armed 24-year-old, was the Braves' return in the Evan Gattis-to-Houston trade prior to 2015. He's a classic case of a big, straight fastball not translating to success.

In 223⅔ innings in the majors, Foltynewicz has a 4.99 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. He's allowed 1.5 homers per nine innings (bad) and his opponents have hit .289.

Foltynewicz has a 7.62 ERA in three career meetings with the Phillies. They jumped him the last time they saw him, July 5, homering four times in his 5⅔ innings. 

Current Phillies are 15 for 43 (.396) off Foltynewicz. Howard, Tommy Joseph, Maikel Franco, Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos have all taken him deep.

Foltynewicz (8-5, 4.41) hasn't pitched since Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs on 11 hits to the Marlins in just 3⅔ innings.

5. This and that
• Roman Quinn's season is almost certainly over after he suffered an oblique strain last night. If that's the case, he'll finish his first taste of the majors with a .263/.373/.333 batting line, five steals and four doubles in 69 plate appearances. Quinn looks like a significant part of their future, but the Phillies really can't move other pieces around for him because of his lengthy injury history.

• Freddie Freeman in 17 games against the Phillies this season: .381 BA, five doubles, six homers, 11 RBIs, 17 runs, 10 walks. He's had a tremendous season in all aspects, but the most impressive stat might be that he's hitting .307 against righties and .307 against lefties. Prior to this season he was a .300 hitter vs. righties and a .260 hitter vs. lefties.

• Last night's two-hour rain delay probably cost Jerad Eickhoff a chance at reaching 200 innings. He's scheduled to start the final game of the season but would need to pitch 8⅔ innings to reach that plateau.

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