Roy Halladay returns sooner than expected

PHILADELPHIA -- Roy Halladay was asleep in a hotel room in Reading, Pa., late Saturday night while the Philadelphia Phillies were smack-dab in the middle of an 18-inning marathon at Citizens Bank Park. Shortly before midnight, his phone rang and a voice at the other end asked if he would be up for a change of plans: Was he prepared to pass on Sunday’s Double-A rehab appearance to take the mound for the big club against the Arizona Diamondbacks?

Sure, Halladay said, in so many words.

It was a prudent call. Six innings, 94 pitches and roughly 16 hours after exiting dream-land, Halladay passed a symbolic hurdle in his attempted comeback from shoulder surgery.

And he didn’t even have to spring for the postgame food spread.

In his first big-league start since May 5, Halladay displayed middling velocity and benefited from some wonderful defensive play from center fielder Roger Bernadina. But he hung around long enough to pick up the win in a 9-5 Phillies’ victory over the Diamondbacks, and now he has something to build on as Philadelphia plays out the string in the National League East.

Halladay’s status as a franchise favorite transcends his 54-28 record in a Philadelphia uniform. He won his second career Cy Young Award here in 2010, and added a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter to his resume. Beyond that, he embodies everything the Phillies or any other franchise could want from a staff ace in terms of work ethic, dedication and setting the bar high for his rotation-mates.

The conventional wisdom is that Halladay must reinvent himself because of his diminished velocity at age 36. He has a lot of mileage on that right shoulder, and skepticism abounded after he went in for multiple repairs in May.

Although the Citizens Bank Park radar gun charitably showed him hitting 91 mph several times against the Diamondbacks, the Pitch/FX account of the game had him topping out with six fastballs clocked at 89 mph. And four of those came in the first inning.

But Halladay, ever the technician, sounds cautiously optimistic. As he continues to make mechanical adjustments, he is getting progressively more comfortable with his arm slot and the movement on his pitches. He threw a healthy mix of fastballs, cutters, curveballs and changeups against the Diamondbacks, and is making an effort to keep hitters honest by throwing his secondary pitches for strikes early in the count.

“More than anything, I feel like I’m getting back to who I was,” Halladay said. “You always change over your career. Just from talking to the doctors, the velocity is going to be the last thing to come. I may pick up a little bit as the season goes on. But once you get that full rest in the winter is when it really starts coming back.”

The mere sight of Halladay in uniform is an emotional lift for his teammates and Phillies fans, who have watched their team muddle along at 59-71 on the way to a losing record for the first time since 2000. Halladay’s return made for a slightly bigger buzz at the park Sunday afternoon.

“When he came out at 1 o’clock, you could hear that rustle in the stands,” infielder Kevin Frandsen said. “You could feel it. When he’s shown up for rehab here -- when he’s not in Florida doing his thing -- I feel like it’s a special time. There’s an example and a precedent he sets. As good as he is and as competitive he is, he works harder than anyone.”

September will bring a few interesting plotlines for the Phillies. Interim manager Ryne Sandberg has brought energy, a plan and some candid dialogue in his first 10 days on the job. Darin Ruf’s nine homers this month are second most in the majors behind Miguel Cabrera. Rookie third baseman Cody Asche has impressed his teammates by carrying himself like a big leaguer, and Bernadina, an athletic outfielder who just came over from Washington, made two noteworthy Web Gems on Sunday. He’ll get an extended look in the final month. “He really looks like he can get 'em,” Sandberg said.

Will Halladay be part of the picture moving forward? The Phillies will not be picking up his $20 million option for 2014, but Halladay can make a statement by pitching well over the next five weeks. At the very least, he and the Phillies have an emotional attachment and some history to lay the groundwork for continuing their relationship beyond November, when he becomes a free agent.

“I’m not worried about it at this point,” Halladay said. “I can’t worry about the future. There’s nothing I can do other than go out and pitch game to game. That’s what I’m going to try and do: get better each time I go out there.”

Halladay will spend the next five weeks trying to show the Phillies -- and himself -- precisely how much he has left in the tank. It’s a clich√©, for sure, but the quality of opposing hitters’ swings will tell him all he needs to know.