The great ones don't all go out like Ted Williams, hitting .316 in his final season and homering in his final at-bat, rounding the bases at Fenway Park on a gray afternoon that required the lights turned on. "He didn't tip his cap," wrote John Updike. "Though we thumped, wept, and chanted 'We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back."
Pitchers, especially, have a difficult time seeing the end. There's Bob Gibson hobbling through a bad knee. There's Juan Marichal suiting up for -- say it wasn't so -- the Dodgers. There's Steve Carlton trying to hang on with the Giants and the White Sox and the Indians and the Twins.
I'm not saying Roy Halladay is done. Not after one mediocre season and one bad season-opening start on a wet, drizzly night in Atlanta. But Halladay's work in Wednesday's 9-2 loss to the Braves did nothing to assuage concerns about his rocky spring training that included a lack of velocity and poor results (16.1 IP, 21 H, 9 BB, 16 SO). Those totals don't even include a game against Blue Jays minor leaguers when he retired only seven of the 18 batters he faced and induced just three swings-and-misses.
"It's not a boxing match," Halladay had said after that outing, which included only a pitch or two that cracked 90 mph. "It's not strength versus strength. It's a chess match. It's competition of the mind and execution and being smarter and being more prepared."
There's no doubting that no pitcher will be more prepared than Halladay, who is known for his legendary workout routines. But that doesn't hide the obvious here: He isn't throwing like the Roy Halladay who won the National League Cy Young Award in 2010 and finished second in the voting in 2011. His playoff no-hitter against the Reds in the 2010 National League Division Series was Van Gogh painting "Starry Night" or Koufax in the 1965 World Series, a master at the peak of his powers. That game was only 30 months ago but was a different incarnation of Halladay. That year, his four-seam fastball averaged 92 mph but he could crank it up as high as 95. Last year, according to pitch-classification data, Halladay largely abandoned the four-seamer and used a cut fastball more often. His velocity was down to the upper 80s for the most part, partially because of that pitch selection, but also because of a shoulder problem that eventually landed him on the disabled list.
Against the Braves on Wednesday, Halladay finished with one of the oddest pitching lines you'll ever see. He struck out nine batters, a good sign, but lasted just 3.1 innings, removed after 95 pitches, certainly a bad sign. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he became the first pitcher since 1900 to strike out that many batters while lasting that few innings; he also threw 40 pitches in an inning for the first time since July 2007.
It's that pitch count that creates more cause for worry than the strikeouts create cause for optimism. Halladay's game is a chess match, but it's one that involves quick outs, ground balls and low pitch counts. That game against the Reds? 104 pitches. In 2010 and 2011, Halladay had only three starts of fewer than six innings, the shortest being a four-inning stint in 2011, a game he left early because of the heat and humidity at Wrigley Field. Last year, he had three starts of fewer than five innings, including two against the Braves (he allowed 22 runs in 17.2 innings against Atlanta last year).
Maybe the Braves just have his number. Justin Upton hit a two-run homer on a 1-2, 91 mph fastball in the first inning. Catcher Erik Kratz set up inside but the pitch moved over the center of the plate, low in the zone, though Upton cleared the fence in right-center, a pretty good piece of hitting. In the fourth, rookie catcher Evan Gattis, making his major league debut, hit a 1-1, 88 mph fastball over the fence in left. Neither cleared by much, so there was a little bad luck there for Halladay, but neither pitch demonstrated the pinpoint Halladay location we're used to seeing.
It's certainly too soon to panic. Halladay's fastest pitch of the evening was clocked at 91.7 mph, which is a good sign considering his velocity in spring training. And as Halladay will tell you, velocity isn't everything. But if he's going to win his future chess matches, he's going to have to continue to adapt and start painting those corners like the Halladay of old.
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Quick note on Gattis, the 26-year-old rookie who became a folk hero during spring training, winning a spot on the roster with Brian McCann still rehabbing from shoulder surgery. If you're not familiar with Gattis' story, he had been a star player in high school in Texas, recruited to play at Texas A&M, but admitted a fear of failure and depression drove him to quit the game and he never enrolled in school. He went through drug rehab for marijuana and alcohol use and didn't play baseball for four years.
He later got the baseball itch again, enrolled in junior college, was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round in 2010 and hit .305 with 18 home runs in 272 at-bats in the minors last year. He's big (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and strong and can hit, although he doesn't really have a position yet (he has played some left field along with catching). I was watching the Braves' local telecast and as Gattis was batting in the fourth, his father was being interviewed. As Gattis made contact, his dad simply interrupted the interview to say, "There he goes ..." And it went.
What a great moment. Roy Halladay has had many great moments. Hopefully he'll have a few more. And I suspect we haven't heard the last of Evan Gattis, either.