Phillies

For Chase Utley and Cole Hamels, memories of Roy Halladay's perfecto are fresh and cherished

For Chase Utley and Cole Hamels, memories of Roy Halladay's perfecto are fresh and cherished

Chase Utley can still feel the nerves pulsating through his body like an electrical current.

Cole Hamels can still hit the play button in his mind and recite the conversations he had.

A decade later, their memories of Roy Halladay’s perfect game are still fresh.

“It was the fifth or sixth inning,” Utley recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second, they don’t have any hits.’ That’s when I realized it could possibly happen.”

It did happen.

Ten years ago this week, on May 29, 2010, Roy Halladay went 27-up, 27-down against the Florida Marlins on a steamy night in South Florida. The temptation is to say that the perfect game was Halladay’s grand introduction as a Phillie because, after all, it came in just his 11th start with the club. But, truth be told, the big right-hander had announced his arrival with authority even before that start. He had pitched two shutouts on his way to four complete games in his first 10 starts with the club and his brief but brilliant legend as a Phillie was already growing.

Start No. 11 stood apart from all the rest — at least until Halladay pitched a playoff no-hitter against Cincinnati later that season — because perfection so seldom happens in a sport where failing seven out of 10 times is an enviable reality. Halladay’s perfect game was just the 20th in Major League history at the time and memories of it have become more poignant, more cherished in the 2½ years since his death in a small plane crash in November 2017.

Utley played second base behind Halladay in that tight 1-0 win in Miami. And after he looked up at the scoreboard and realized what was happening — after his OMG moment — his nerves started to crackle. Because though perfect games ultimately go on a pitcher’s record, they are a team accomplishment, as well. One blemish on defense can unravel the whole thing.

“One-hundred percent,” said Utley, describing the flow of anxiety he felt playing defense late in that game. “We had only been around Roy for a few months, but we’d seen what he was all about firsthand. You want a guy like that to succeed. 

“You tried not to put any extra pressure on yourself, but you were definitely more engaged and tuned in. Having no fear is important. I remember thinking I wanted the ball hit to me. I remember anticipating it coming my way and attacking it like I normally would.”

With the exception of catcher Carlos Ruiz, Hamels might have had the best seat in the house for Halladay’s tour de force.

Hamels had pitched two nights earlier in New York. When Halladay took the mound that Saturday night in Miami, Hamels took a seat alongside Jamie Moyer, the next day’s starting pitcher, in a camera well at the home plate end of the visiting dugout.

For two hours and 13 minutes, that camera well became an observation deck as Hamels and Moyer watched and admired Doc Halladay perform surgery. As Halladay started to rack up quick outs, the veteran Moyer, a walking textbook of pitching who had been a mentor to the younger Hamels, got more and more excited about the lesson that was unfolding out on the mound.

“This is why you keep notes,” Moyer told Hamels. “This is why you study hitters. This is why you do it — because you might have the opportunity to do something like this someday. This is the reward you can have.”

Hamels can still hear the conversation.

“That game made me appreciate what Jamie had been telling me for a few years, that you really had to have a game plan, about executing that game plan and making sure you’re focused and never get off it,” Hamels said. “For years he’d been telling me to develop that notebook and keep track of all that information.”

Halladay needed just 115 pitches to finish his clinic against the Marlins. He struck out 11.

It takes a confluence of positive factors for a pitcher to throw a perfect game. Obviously, the maestro needs to be on top of his game. The defense needs to hit all the right notes. And it sure helps if the umpire has a wide strike zone.

Mike DiMuro was the home plate umpire that night in Miami. He had the kind of strike zone that perfect games dream of. Marlins leadoff man Chris Coghlan, rung up on a 3-2 pitch to open the bottom of the first inning, testified to that during his time as a player in Phillies camp in February 2017.

“Big strike zone that night,” Coghlan told us nearly seven years after Halladay’s perfecto. “Go back and look at it. I was leading off, 3-2, ball off the plate, strike three. I still get chapped about it. Go look at it. It could have been totally different.”

As our conversation with Coghlan went on, it became clear that he really wasn’t angry about the strike zone that night. It was more the competitor in him talking.

If anyone would understand that, it would have been Halladay, a competitor’s competitor.

“Oh, everybody loves [a perfect game] except for the guys it’s happening against,” Coghlan said. “I had some buddies at the game and afterward they were like, ‘Bro, that was awesome. I can’t believe I saw that. I’m saving this ticket.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re in the family room, bro, and you’re ticking me off. We just got embarrassed. You can find your own ride home. I’m not giving you a ride.’ 

“I joke about the zone that night. But I would never diminish anything that man did. To pitch a perfect game, everything has to go perfect and it did for him that night. He was a legend.”

The defense came through for Halladay late in the game that night 10 years ago. Juan Castro made two standout plays at third base, one in which he went to his left, spun and fired to first to end the game. Castro, usually a reserve, was at third that night because Greg Dobbs made a couple of errors in Halladay’s previous start, a loss against Boston. Manager Charlie Manuel opted for a glove at third in Halladay’s next start and the move proved huge.

That final out is Utley’s most vivid memory from the night.

“Juan made a great play, spun around — out recorded,” Utley said. “The excitement we as teammates had for what Roy had accomplished was incredible. He had his game face on all night. After a lot of stare downs, it was good to see that great big smile after the last out.

“We had a small part in it, but he’s the guy who got it done. I remember the way he credited Chooch after the game. Roy was such a great teammate, always deflecting attention from himself. They don’t make ‘em like that very often.”

A couple of months after his perfect game, Halladay recognized the team nature of his accomplishment by presenting all of his teammates and Phillies support staff with Swiss wristwatches — 67 of them in all — inscribed with the words “We did it together. Thanks – Roy Halladay.” The watches cost about $2,800 apiece. Utley cherishes the memento and says he will keep it forever even if he doesn’t wear it often.

“I don’t want to muck it up,” he joked.

Memories of the heart can’t be mucked up.

And that night in Miami a decade ago will always hold a special place in a lot of hearts.

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Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Has Vince Velasquez taken the lead in the Phillies' No. 5 starter derby?

Vince Velasquez, looking to earn one more shot in the Phillies’ starting rotation, might have taken a step in that direction in an intrasquad game Tuesday night.

The right-hander was impressive in four unstructured innings of work. (We call it unstructured because he faced an extra batter in some innings to get his pitch count up.) He gave up two hits and a walk and did not allow a run. He struck out six.

Velasquez, who turned 28 in June, apparently did not just put his feet up and wait for baseball to return during the shutdown.

He spent time adding a cutter and improving his changeup. He used both pitches effectively in Tuesday night’s outing. He still has that power fastball and a breaking ball. A deeper, more consistent mix might allow him to finally unlock the tantalizing potential he has shown since arriving in the organization as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015.

“I thought his cutter was good,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s been a good pitch for him. It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”

Velasquez has had two strong outings in intrasquad action over the last week. He is battling Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation. The runner-up in the competition will start the season in the bullpen.

After Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, Girardi was asked if Velasquez has moved into the lead in No. 5 starter’s derby.

“He’s looked really good his last two outings,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you can ignore what he’s doing.”

Velasquez went 7-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 33 games, 23 of which were starts, last season. Inconsistency and the inability to get into the middle innings with a reasonable pitch count led a move to the bullpen. Eventually, a need arose in the rotation and Velasquez found himself back there. That’s where he wants to stay, but time may be running out. The Phils have Spencer Howard on the way and in a short, 60-game season can’t afford to give Velasquez a long leash if he continues to be inconsistent.

It’s time to cash in on that potential.

A change in pitching coach might help Velasquez. Bryan Price believes in moving the ball up and down in the strike zone. The previous regime, trying to capitalize on Velasquez’ power, stressed pitching up in the zone.

Last week, catcher J.T. Realmuto spoke optimistically about Velasquez. Realmuto sensed that Velasquez was doing more “pitching” than “throwing.”

There is a difference.

“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he's using his changeup a lot more than he has in the past, so just the pitchability from him,” Realmuto said. “I was talking with Bryan Price about it. We're not going to be so one-dimensional with him. We're going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up and down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in. He's always had that curveball. He’s looked really good. I expect big things from him.”

We’ve heard that before about Velasquez. The clock is ticking. Maybe this is the year something clicks. The Phillies certainly won’t complain if it is.

While Velasquez is trying to win a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler’s spot is safe. He faced 19 hitters and did not allow a run in the intrasquad game. He is in line to start the second game of the season — family life permitting. Wheeler is due to become a dad in the next couple of weeks and that real-life event will sideline him for at least a start, maybe two. This is why guys like Velasquez, Pivetta, Cole Irvin and others are having their innings stretched out. There may be starter's innings available even after the fifth starter’s job is settled.

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Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

Yasiel Puig joins the NL East

About nine months after free agency opened, Yasiel Puig has finally found a home. He agreed Tuesday to a deal with the Braves, which means the Phillies could see him 10 times in 2020.

The Braves are still a contender but were reeling and needed to make some sort of move to add more talent to their roster. Over the last two weeks, they've seen superstar Freddie Freeman and top reliever Will Smith test positive for COVID-19, while Nick Markakis and Felix Hernandez have opted out of the season.

Puig, 29, will likely play right field and bat in the spot Markakis would have occupied. The Braves still have a strong outfield with Marcell Ozuna in left field, Ronald Acuña Jr. in center and Puig in right. To optimize for defense, they could play Ender Inciarte in the outfield and have either Ozuna or Puig DH.

There was so much fanfare over Puig when he debuted with the Dodgers seven years ago, but he hasn't been able to replicate the production from his first two seasons. He's settled in as a .260-ish hitter with mid-20s home-run power and an on-base percentage right around the league average. In fact, in back to back seasons, he has hit exactly .267 with exactly a .327 OBP.

In 141 career plate appearances against the Phillies, Puig is a .301 hitter with eight doubles, three triples, three homers and 18 RBI.

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