Roy Halladay's minor league adventure

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He headed for the mound at 10:59 on a gloomy Saturday morning, that inimitable all-business Roy Halladay look in his eye.

If you just gazed at the scene around him, without knowing the backstory, you never would have suspected the most important start of the spring, for a two-time Cy Young winner, was about to unfold on a back field at the Carpenter Complex.

A couple of hundred curious fans leaned against the fence along both lines. A dozen minor leaguers jockeyed for position behind home plate, to watch one of their favorite artists at work. No music played. No refreshments were served.

No bells. No whistles. No fanfare. Just Roy Halladay, standing atop a rain-soaked minor league mound, trying to recapture the magic.

The fate of the Philadelphia Phillies' season wasn't exactly riding on the 81 pitches Halladay was about to unfurl, against the Toronto Blue Jays' Triple-A lineup, on this Saturday morning. But that's just the little picture. If you widen your viewfinder, you know what's at stake:

Where this man goes from here and where his team goes from here are as connected as every stitch on the baseballs he'll spend the next six months delivering.

And once again Saturday, after the sixth start of his puzzling spring, it remained impossible to say what kind of pitcher the great Roy Halladay can be anymore.

The results? They were nothing he'll tell his grandkids about someday. You can book that.

He faced 18 hitters. He retired seven of them. Seven.

He allowed three doubles, four singles, two walks and a hit batter. Another hitter reached when Halladay made an errant throw to first after fielding a bunt.

The Phillies announced afterward that he had pitched four "innings" and allowed three runs (two earned). But his pitching coach, Rich Dubee, pulled the plug on one of those innings with two outs and the bases loaded. And four of the remaining 11 outs came on a caught-stealing and three double-play balls.

So only seven hitters actually headed back to the bench without reaching base. Just one of them struck out -- looking, on a fourth-inning changeup, on Halladay's 76th pitch of the day.

More messy details: Halladay threw first-pitch strikes to only eight of 18 hitters. (“That,” muttered one bystander, after another ball one, “isn’t him.”) He induced three swings and misses out of 81 pitches – none on his fastball.

He touched 90 miles per hour on the radar gun once, on his seventh pitch of the day. But mostly, when he delivered his fastball, the guns lit with numbers ranging from 86 to 89. Aroldis Chapman, it wasn't.

Even more to the point, Roy Halladay -- circa 2002-11 -- it wasn't.

So it was hard to say what was more uncomfortable -- watching him pitch, knowing what he used to be, or listening to him try to make it sound afterward like a fabulous day at the office.

Among his upbeat quotes were these: “Armwise, I felt really good.” … “My arm slot felt good.” … “I felt strong. I was surprised.” … “Arm felt great. No soreness. I don’t think I’m going to feel sore tomorrow. And I felt like my stamina was there.”

So if he felt so good, you ask, why did he give up all those hits? Blame the game plan, Halladay said. In his efforts to evolve, change patterns and confuse hitters, he went out there with the idea of throwing more “hard stuff” in counts where he used to throw soft stuff.

In retrospect, he said later, “trying to go as hard as we could, as much as we could, against a minor league team, probably isn't the best plan. But that’s kind of what we needed to do. … It’s something we had to work on. And if I’m going to go pitch and try to win, I’m going to throw as much soft [stuff] as I can. That wasn't the goal today.”

And about those radar-gun readings? He knows he isn't putting up those 93s and 94s the way he used to. But “I think there's more there,” Halladay said. “I really do.”

He blamed a “mushy mound” that kept him from using his legs to drive the ball. But he made it a point to draw an emphatic distinction between the 87-88 mph he’s been throwing this spring with the 87-88 he was throwing last spring, on his way to the disabled list -- and one of the toughest seasons of his distinguished career.

“That was the great thing about today,” Halladay said. “I felt like it wasn't a lot of effort, where last year it was everything I had and it's 87-88, and it's everything I had. And now I feel like I can repeat it, nice and fluid. And it’s coming out of there easy. And I felt like if I needed to add to it, I could.”

But the more he talked, the more he began to sound like the aging pitcher he knows he is now.

It’s not about the strength, and throwing harder, and overpowering guys. It’s about outsmarting and being more prepared and being more consistent. That, to me, is a challenge.

-- Roy Halladay

When he was 26, he had laser-beam command and an arsenal full of out pitches, and good luck hitting any of them. Now, though, he’s seven weeks from turning 36. And he finally has conceded that he can’t do it the way he used to. Not anymore.

“I don’t know of any guys throwing harder as they got older,” he said. “A lot of the guys I've played with, I've watched. I've watched the adjustment they've made. I've watched Pat Hentgen. I've watched Roger Clemens. He started throwing a split. I've watched all those guys. I've watched them all evolve and do different things. I've never seen a guy that threw harder as he got older.

“And if he did,” Halladay said, grinning as he searched for a way to finish this soliloquy, “he probably needed to be tested.”

But the big test, for this man, won’t be administered by any guys wearing lab coats. The test now is how he goes about finding the limits of his own baseball mortality, after 403 trips to the mound, after 2,687 1/3 innings, after launching nearly 40,000 pitches in the past decade and a half.

Asked whether it was difficult on him mentally, knowing he couldn't throw a baseball as hard as he used to, Halladay grew as reflective as we've ever heard him on this topic.

“No, to me, it’s a competition,” he said. “It’s not a boxing match. 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. To me, that's what I've enjoyed. That’s what I've liked about baseball.

“You look at a Jamie Moyer,” he went on. “He could compete with the best of them. He would have gotten knocked out in the first round if he was a boxer.”

Now this wouldn't be the first time we've heard a pitcher use that Jamie Moyer analogy to prove it's possible to pitch and win no matter how hard you throw. But hold on. This wasn't some veteran junk-balling left-hander talking. This was Roy Halladay.

This was a man who, as recently as two years ago, was carving up hitters with 40 fastballs a game. And now he’s talking about changing patterns, messing with different counts to throw his offspeed stuff, trying to find a different grip with his cutter, invoking those analogies to Jamie Moyer.

So … any more questions about where this man is at these days, or how he thinks he needs to pitch to win?

“It’s just a different mentality,” he said. “It’s not about the strength, and throwing harder, and overpowering guys. It’s about outsmarting and being more prepared and being more consistent. That, to me, is a challenge.”

Well, he’s right about that. If this is who he is, if this is how hard he throws, if this is how he has to go about it, he’s in for arguably the biggest challenge of his pitching life. Possibly even bigger than that trip he took back to the Florida State League 13 years ago to reinvent himself.

So it was ironic that, on an overcast Saturday morning in March, he found himself trying to write yet one more new script, on a soggy mound just a few miles up the road from that ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., where he scripted his first baseball reincarnation.

Maybe he has another rebirth ahead of him. But if he does, it would come as quite a shock to the couple of hundred people who watched him get hit around on this day, on a back field at the Carpenter Complex.