It’s not easy getting older and trying to recover that old magic. That’s especially the case for an elite athlete like Roy Halladay who is used to stepping onto a pitcher’s mound and doing whatever he wants.
But in this case it’s extra rough for Halladay, who says he feels healthy for the first time in two-and-a-half years following shoulder surgery in May. The thing is Halladay is healthy and strong, but he’s not quite ready to run yet.
In Thursday night’s 10-5 victory over the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay), Halladay showed glimpses of his strength and health, allowing just one run on three hits and a walk with six strikeouts over the first four innings.
Then the fifth inning rolled around.
Halladay faced six hitters in the fifth inning, retiring the first hitter and giving up a soft infield single to the last man he faced. In between, Halladay walked four straight batters for the first time of his big-league career as the Padres posted four runs off the two-time Cy Young Award winner without the ball ever leaving the infield.
“I kind of lost my base in the fifth inning. I was just kind of collapsing,” Halladay said. “It was frustrating because I felt good, I was really looking forward to pitching today. For the most part we were right where we wanted to be and then that fifth inning, my lower half kind of disappeared from me. In the past I’ve been able to make things work, but it seems like right now I need everything to click. When I lost my lower half it was tough to really drive and stay strong on the front side, and as a result a lot of the balls were down.”
It’s more than pitching mechanics and command for Halladay, though. Staked to six runs in the first, the Phillies’ hitters made it easy for the right-hander as they went on to score double digits for just the fourth time this season.
But Halladay is like a truck stuck in the mud and spinning his tires. Every time he jumps on the gas in attempt to get out of it, the deeper he gets stuck in the mud. It’s especially frustrating because Halladay wants to pitch and he feels good. He says he worked really hard to get back and pitch this season when the easy thing would have been to go home, recover and wait for next spring training.
Sometimes Halladay says he doesn’t recognize himself. It’s as if he’s on the outside watching himself pitch and wondering, “Who’s that?”
“It’s not so much frustration as it is patience. It’s hard to be patient,” Halladay said. “You go from not knowing if you’re ever going to pitch again to getting back and then as soon as you’re back you expect to dominate. It’s just not the way it works. I have to be patient with that. I feel like I’ve come a long way and I’m very optimistic moving forward and I feel like I’m going in the right direction. It’s just a matter of avoiding an inning or two -- avoiding certain mechanical things or stuff like that. That’s what’s tough for me.”
Sure, Halladay takes pride in the fact that he was able to have surgery in May and come back to pitch in August. He knows he has to have perspective and understand that it’s going to take some time. Interim manager Ryne Sandberg can see the positives from Halladay’s four starts since having surgery. He sees how Halladay will get stronger and will fine tune his mechanics. He didn’t just lose it.
“You could call that ahead of schedule, when he came back here and pitched and continue to pitch, to be in the rotation,” Sandberg said. “But the perception is that he is healthy and he’ll gain from this. He’ll gain strength and really feel the difference after the offseason going into next year.”
Sandberg also knows what it’s like to be an elite player and see things slow down. He went through it when his Hall-of-Fame career ended in 1997. Halladay gets it, too. He just also believes that the results should matter, too.
It’s one thing to make an admirable comeback, but it’s another thing to be productive and competitive.
“In all honesty, I’m proud of the fact that I made it back and that a lot of guys my age could be at home, could be not pitching, could never pitch again,” Halladay said. “I feel like I beat some of those odds and that’s what I look at. I woke up this morning and it’s like Christmas morning getting to pitch again after sitting out and watching the team and not being a part of it. It’s a completely different thrill to be able to go out there and pitch now. I want to do a better job for us.”
Halladay will get another turn in five days, though he might have to pitch without the run support. Behind three hits, two walks and three RBIs from Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies went 5 for 11 with runners in scoring position, drew eight walks and picked up 14 hits.
In his last 20 games, Ruiz is batting .389 with three homers and 16 RBIs.
“Chooch has been steady, quality, right guy at the right spot at the plate with guys on base. Clutch hits. Just really locked in,” Sandberg said. “I think that in a lot of ways, he was the one that started being hot and it seems like the rest of guys have fed off him being hot.”
Following Ruiz’s lead, the Phillies have won five out of their last six and took back-to-back series. They will look to keep it going this weekend in Washington in a three-game series that begins on Friday night.