End of an ERA?

In the middle of the sixth inning at a Phillies v Braves game last Saturday the 7,300 square feet HD video screen shows a guy in the crowd going down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend.

There’s a pause.

“Errrmmmm…yes…?” came the response, finally.

Roy Halladay was the Phillies starting pitcher that day and by the middle of the sixth inning he’s typically in an irresistible groove of location mixing, balance unsettling, knee-buckling greatness that has the opposition ecstatic if they have scratched out even a couple of runs.Not so on Saturday. Halladay was torched in a way that hadn’t happened in a full decade. A decade over which most baseball observers would without hesitation dub him the best pitcher in the league. His credentials include:

8x All-Star

2x Cy Young award winner

7x leading the league in complete games

5x leading the league in strikeouts-to-walks ratio

2x leading the league in wins

1 perfect game pitched

When he was lifted for a relief pitcher having not made it through two innings, Halladay had gone for seven runs, which just doesn’t happen to him. Ever. In fact just writing this feels weird. Here’s his pitching line:

1 2/3 Innings pitched, 5 hits, 7 runs, 3 walks, 3 strikeouts, 1 home run.

For the season that left his ERA at 4.40 – the worst it’s been since his first full year as a starter: 2002. What’s worrying for him and for the Phillies is that Saturday’s blowup had been coming. And I don’t just mean after the pre-game warmups during which he appeared to be straining severely with every pitch. And not just since a muscular injury in his back left him on the sidelines for 6 weeks earlier in the season. The guy hasn’t been right all year, and even going to the back end of last season you had to hold your breath for the first couple of innings in case he got lit up before he could find his groove.

On Saturday the main problem seemed to be that he couldn’t get his pitches down in the zone – he’s getting less movement on them and they’re belt high all puckered up and ready. Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman took advantage in the first inning with a blast that hit – loudly – the hoarding in front of the second deck, the same place he’d been peppering during batting practice

In the clubhouse after the Braves game, Halladay was a truly pitiable sight. Or at least as pitiable a sight as a 6’6” guy earning $20m/year with an apparently happy home life and can be. With three video camera lights in his face and a dozen more voice recorders shoved at his mouth, he stood there dutifully for nearly 10 minutes taking questions without blanching at the never-ending series of questions about his health and long-term prospects as an elite pitcher. He was out there so long in fact that a Phillies employee muttered to his colleague afterwards that Halladay had been left out there “a couple questions too long”.

He spoke so quietly as to be barely audible. He looked more depressed than I’ve ever seen a sportsman beyond the immediate aftermath of a gut-wrenching defeat. He sounded bewildered in a way that was frankly scary for someone who’s lived a decade in the cocoon of an obsessive and overwhelmingly successful work ethic. He acknowledged additional physical problems (spasms behind his shoulder blade two days previously) that had hindered him and promised to do his utmost to build an offseason training regimen that would “address as much of [the physical problems) as I can”.

How he goes about that will be anybody’s guess. Well, it’ll be Halladay and the Phillies’ guess actually as they attempt to find a way to restore a 35 year old athlete to his previously dominant position in the game, to safeguard against the recurrence of injuries in a body that is now past its physical peak.

So will he make it all the way back? Can he again cast a shadow of impending doom over opposing dugouts and lead the Phillies on another quest towards the goal of a world championship that his career and dedication deserves?

There’s a pause.

“Errrmmmm…yes…?”

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