The WPHL lead-in to Wednesday night's game begins with play-by-play man Tom McCarthy telling viewers, "Since Roy Halladay arrived in Philadelphia you can see it in his eyes. You can see the determination for success and the purpose to reach a level of greatness. His eyes always told the story while reaching perfection," and here we see Halladay hugging catcher Carlos Ruiz after the final out of Halladay's perfect game before the scene switches to the final out of Halladay's postseason no-hitter against the Reds, "and when embracing his first postseason endeavor."
McCarthy's lead-in is a bit of a word salad of true-grit buzzwords, but it hits on the essential reason that Halladay has become the face of this Phillies team: he's an elite player who makes it obvious from how he plays the game that he's always giving full effort. But if he represents the best qualities around which Ruben Amaro Jr. has built his team, he also represents the risks attached to them: injury, expense, and the unstoppable necessity of growing old.
McCarthy and his color man Chris Wheeler were hoping that Wednesday Halladay would come back, go deep into the ballgame and get his 200th career win, and that Philadelphia fans would get a happy ending to the narrative that's driven Halladay's offseason: that the lost velocity on his fastball is gone for good; that he's no longer commanding his off-speed pitches; that at age 36, the man who once had the worst year in history by a starting pitcher in the modern era and then spent the next decade building a convincing case for enshrinement to the Hall of Fame was finally done being an elite pitcher in the major leagues.
They didn't get that, obviously. The Phillies lost 9-2 in what has been a soul-crushing opening series for them. But even though Halladay only lasted 3 1/3 cold, miserable rain-soaked innings -- and gave up five of those runs across three walks and six hits, two of which left the ballpark -- their faith in Halladay wasn't completely repudiated, either. When he wasn't giving up deep flies or putting men on base, Halladay was doing what Phillies fans, and Blue Jays fans before them, remember him best for: making batters look silly.
In those 3 1/3 innings, of the ten outs, all but one was recorded via the strikeout. Of those nine strikeouts, the only guy not to strike out swinging was opposing pitcher Paul Maholm, who was called out looking at strike three twice. Watching Halladay pitch, you can see why: Halladay can still throw everything in his arsenal with more or less the same movement and break it once had, though his fastball's down a tick. He just can't command any of it right now.
The warning signs were evident early. Halladay's inability to hit his spots was on display against the very first batter he faced, right-handed hitter Andrelton Simmons. Simmons struck out swinging on five pitches, a very good outcome for Doc and the Phillies, but over the course of the at-bat Halladay delivered the pitch to the same part of the plate where catcher Erik Kratz set up only once: the very first pitch of the ballgame, an 88 mph fastball that caught the inside corner. Halladay's next pitch, another fastball, was at 90 -- and missed low and away. He went back to where he threw that first fastball with his third pitch, a cutter, but Kratz set up low and away from Simmons and had to come back across the plate to get the pitch; no harm, no foul, and still a 1-2 count on the Braves' leadoff hitter. The next two pitches basically sum up every positive outcome Halladay would have the rest of the night: the fourth pitch is an 80 mph split-finger change that Kratz wants over the plate but down, and while Halladay gets it over the plate, it stays about belt-high. Luckily, Simmons isn't a fantastic breaking ball hitter at this point in his career and the change of speed fools him -- he's only able to emergency hack the pitch foul down the third base line. Then Kratz moves low and away again; Halladay delivers his final pitch for the first of his 9 strikeouts... and Andrelton Simmons swings through another change-up, this one with a lot more bite, back where the first two pitches were on the inside part of the plate.
Chris Wheeler picks up on this as Simmons is walking back to the dugout, chuckling that maybe Halladay fooled Kratz too, or that there was some sort of mix-up about where the pitch should come in. It's easy to laugh at that sort of stuff when the outcome is Simmons striking out swinging; less so when it's Justin Upton sending a fastball over the wall in right center two batters later to give the Braves a two-run lead. Kratz wanted the pitch inside and down around the knees, but while Halladay got it down (though still in the strike zone) it stayed out over the plate. Credit Upton: Not many hitters can do much with a pitch down there, especially not in weather conditions that should have made it hard for the ball to carry. But even he would've had a tough time doing much with that pitch if it had arrived where Kratz wanted it.
The Braves are an aggressive team at the plate as well, so they're more prone to the strikeout than perhaps some other clubs might be. After all, do you think the Braves care too much about Halladay striking them out nine times if they touch him up for five runs and reach the bullpen before the end of the fourth inning? That said, the good news about all of this, beyond the usual bad weather and "it's only one start" caveats, is that Halladay's arsenal seemed to be working the way it used to -- he was just unable to put it where he wanted. That should be more fixable than a fastball that's straightened out or a breaking ball that no longer breaks, especially for a guy who's been doing this at the level Halladay has for so long now.
But being able to fix something isn't the same as being able to turn back time. Not every legend can pitch until he's 45 and still mow through lineups. Halladay is used to being one of the best pitchers in baseball, and it visibly upset him on the mound last year and Wednesday night that this was no longer the case. It's hard to know what goes on inside anyone's head, baseball player or otherwise, but Halladay seems to be pitching as though if he can just put a few good starts together, get on a roll and gather momentum, some block in his head or arm will fall away, his velocity will come back, and everything will be perfect again like it used to be.
And maybe he's right; baseball's got absurdity enough in it for feel-good movie endings as much as any other kind of unlikely twist. But the odds are that the pitcher who no-hit the Reds in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS is gone for good. What's left now is up to Roy Halladay.