By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — The eyes are still searching. Like they always have. A few miles off the fastball, no problem. Work through it. Find an answer. Like he always had. Location and command slightly off. Work through it. Like he always had.
But a deeper look into the eyes tell a more rendering story about Doc Halladay. The eyes are vacant. The answers aren’t there, like they used to be. Working through it isn’t working.
The New York Mets knocked the great Halladay groggy Monday night like a once-great fighter whose reflexes are shot, and they’re still clinging to what they used to be.
The Mets sent Halladay and the Phillies reeling in a 7-2 setback. Halladay fell to 0-2 and hasn’t gotten out of the fifth inning in his first two starts this year, carrying a bloated, uncharacteristic 14.73 ERA. In 7.1 innings pitched this season, he’s surrendered 12 earned runs and 12 hits. He’s struck out 12, but he’s also yielded six walks.
He’s groping. Like an aged world champion fighter who can’t accept reality. They can’t get out of the way of a punch anymore. Their feet don’t move when their mind wants it. And no one in baseball has had a stronger, more keen, diligent intellect when it comes to pitching, and pitching mechanics, than Halladay has had over the last decade.
He’s a surefire Hall of Famer. He’s arguably one of the greatest pitchers of the last decade. His brilliant 21-10 season for the Phils in 2010 has to go down as one of the most dominating seasons in the team’s history.
And now, sadly, that radiance and fire seem extinguished. The fans see it. The Phillies reluctantly have to see it. Phils’ manager Charlie Manuel, regardless of his loyal-to-a-fault ways, certainly has to see it.
It seems like the only one who doesn’t is Halladay. That’s usually the case with shot fighters. They lug denial around like a sack of bricks. They know it’s there. They don’t accept it until they get slammed flat on their face. They’re not the intimidating force they used to be.
Halladay has taken a pounding. Emotionally. Psychologically. He may be hurting. His face is redder than the red on his jersey (or as Al Morganti said this morning on the WIP Morning Show, “He looks like a roofer in Ecuador”). Just breathing makes him sweat. He’d never publicly admit something physically is wrong. It’s not in his nature to quit or question.
Halladay won’t quit, and someone is going to have to throw in the towel to save him.
“When you’re trying to find something, the more you’re grasping at it, the more you’re reaching for it, the more you’re trying to find it, the harder it is to get it,” said a very candid, reflective Halladay after the Mets loss. “You really have to stick to your routine, stick to your program, prepare every day and let it come to you. When you want it so bad, you’ll do everything to get it.
“For a starting pitcher, it’s good to get ahead and attack. I had a lot of 2-0 counts. A lot of high-pitch counts. There were a couple of pitches I made that I felt were good pitches and got hit. But really for the most part, I’d get behind and make a pitch I really didn’t want to make. That’s where I gave up the hits. It’s definitely command. That’s the biggest thing and the hardest thing to force. The more you force it, the more it goes away from there. That’s one of those things where you really need to be tension free and let the ball do its thing. Instead of force what you want to happen.”
Halladay said he didn’t feel like he was exerting more energy. It’s been trying, Halladay admitted. He cares about his teammates. He cares about the fans. Halladay said he got a text message from his son saying he’s still his hero.
“That means a lot, those kinds of things mean a lot,” Halladay said. “Those are the kinds of things that do help you relax and put things in perspective and get back to simplification. There’s a line between picking and trying to make the ball go where you want it to go. You have to trust your mechanics and trust your lines and let the ball go where it needs to go. In the bullpen, it’s doing that. When I get in the game, I want to force it, I want to make it go there. Today, I was forcing it and trying to do everything I do to reach out and put the ball in the catcher’s glove. Instead of trusting the mechanics, trusting the preparation and letting the ball take care of itself.”
On Monday night, there was one positive for Halladay, his fastball clocked in at an average of 89.7 MPH, up from 88.7 in his first start this season.
Maybe it’s a sign of better things ahead. Everyone around Halladay can only hope. Because over these last two years, all Halladay has shown are the signs of the former sleek champion, now cotton-mouthed and groping at the shadows of what he used to be.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.