Sunday, April 7, 2013

When the whispers start

With a Children’s Wish fan.
I have long been a fan of Roy “Doc” Halladay. Not only has he been a great pitcher for a very long time, he’s been a paragon of professionalism, a straight-talker to the press who doesn’t hide away in the club house when he’s had a poor game, as well as a total class act. When he left Toronto for the Phillies in a trade he asked for and deserved, it was followed by a letter to Toronto sports fans published in a newspaper, thanking them for their support and kindnesses during his stay in our city. There were no hard feelings when Roy left as there were when AJ Burnett kicked sand in our faces when he signed with the Yankees after we’d stood by him during an injury-plagued few years. We won’t even talk about skipper John Farrell, now of Boston, in town this weekend with his “dream job”. (I really hope Dickey and the Jays keep Boston’s ass in today’s game.) Torontonians actually felt good that Halliday had stuck with the team for so long, even though we’d never managed to get to the post season. That certainly hadn’t been due to anything he’d done.

During his first year with the Phillies, we were all pulling for him. I’d look at the box score every time he pitched. He had a typical Roy Halladay year, too, the first 20-game winner by a Philly right-hander since Robin Roberts had done it in 1955. On May 29th, he pitched the 20th perfect game in ML history. To commemorate the event, everyone on the team (and support staff) received a beautiful watch, engraved with their names on the back and with the box bearing the inscription: “We did it together. Thanks, Roy Halladay.” Now that, my friends, is class.

Not done yet, he pitched only the second no-hitter in post season history.

We all felt great for him, and I was exceptionally disappointed when Philly was eliminated and never made it to the series, something we all knew Halladay really wanted, and as we all felt, deserved. In 2011, they again failed in their quest to make it to the end.

Then last season, he began to have a lot of trouble. He spent time on the DL with shoulder problems and went 11-8 with the worst era since he first started pitching. It was a very un-Roy Halliday-type season. The whispers started.

His problems continued in spring training this year and the whispers grew louder. He claims everything is fine, but there’s no doubt the velocity of his fastball has dropped with it barely reaching the 90 mph range. More troubling still, even though he struck out 9 in 3 1/3 innings, it took him 95 pitches to do it. This is a pitcher who once chucked an 83-pitch complete game. The really troubling thing? The batters who didn’t strike out hit him at a rate of .857.

You have to ask if Halladay is through. No matter how you look at it, the question is legitimate. I would like to think that he isn’t. Roy Halladay has been a great pitcher for a long time. But more importantly, he’s been a smart pitcher. Jayson Stark, an ESPN baseball writer, states in his excellent post on the same subject that Halladays punch-outs of nine Braves hitters was done by fooling them.

I take heart in that. If Doc can find a new way to challenge hitters early in the count since his legendary pinpoint command isn’t quite there, his pitches are coming in flatter and the speed of his fastball has dropped, he could remain one of the elite pitchers in the game. He still has the stuff to fool hitters, as witnessed by the 9 punch-outs. But those are “soft”. He’s surviving by guile. He needs something new – or increased velocity.

A sidebar: It was a very cold day in that first game for Halladay this week. I have seen him have trouble  in this situation, no doubt because he doesn’t have a good feel for the ball. We tend to forget just how much a cold day can affect all ball players, some more than others. Perhaps this was the cause for his uncharacteristic wildness.

If anyone can find that, I would like to think that Roy Halladay is the man for the job. He’s not going to give in easily and he’s smart enough to come up with the answer. And perhaps his team will make it all the way through the post season and he will finally get his coveted World Series ring.

Then the aging warrior can retire at the height of the game. I’m not the only baseball fan who would love to see that happen. No ball player deserves it more.

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