"You are talking about the best pitcher in the big leagues," the Yankees catcher said with a chuckle. "You'll see. I'm not going to talk about it. Ask me that question at the end of the season."
Talk to folks in baseball circles who have witnessed Harry Leroy Halladay in action and they invariably will leave you with those two words. It is the message Ruben Amaro Jr. relayed with his confident demeanor as the Phillies' general manager fielded question after question regarding the wisdom of his decision to trade three well-regarded prospects for a former Cy Young winner when he already had one named Cliff Lee, who was shipped out in the multiteam transaction. It is the message Charlie Manuel imparted daily to the hordes of national media who flocked to Clearwater during the first week of spring training.
It is the message pitching coach Rich Dubee relayed as he leaned back in a conference room following Halladay's first Grapefruit League start and talked about the thick binders of detailed notes his new ace carried with him to their initial offseason meet-and-greet.
"There's not much that goes by this guy that he doesn't know, or hasn't prepared to be ready for," Dubee said.
If all of them are to be believed, today is the day you will start to see. Halladay, the 32-year-old righthander who has spent much of the past decade pitching in the toughest division in baseball, will take the ball on Opening Day against a Washington Nationals team that led the majors with 103 losses last season. The Phillies envision the showdown as the first rain band of a perfect storm - a veteran pitcher with a maniacal work ethic and equal command of four disparate pitches joining forces with a power-packed offense against National League lineups that feature one less professional hitter than those he dominated in the American League.
From 2001 to '09, when Halladay established himself as the most consistently dominant pitcher in the majors, he went 120-55 against the American League, posting a 3.18 ERA while striking out 6.7 batters per nine innings and walking 1.65.
During that same time period, he went 15-7 against the National League, posting a 2.73 ERA while striking out 6.8 batters per nine and walking 1.65.
Count Mark Teixeira among those who see the potential. In a career that started with the Rangers, the current Yankees first baseman has faced only six pitchers more often than Halladay. He is also familiar with National League lineups, having spent the second half of the 2007 season and the first half of 2008 with the Braves.
"Going to the National League allows you a few more opportunities for strikeouts, quick innings, getting out of jams," said Teixeira, who is 9-for-36 in his career against Halladay. "So I think his overall numbers are going to be better."
The Phillies will be satisfied if he simply duplicates his past production. Over the last two seasons, he ranks fourth among major league pitchers with a 2.78 ERA and first with 485 innings pitched. He and Mets lefty Johan Santana are the only two pitchers in the majors who have thrown at least 140 innings and posted an ERA under 3.75 in each of the last five seasons. Halladay, who turns 33 on May 14, has thrown at least 200 innings and posted an ERA under 3.30 five times since 2001, the only pitcher to do so.
"I think his consistency is what's most impressive," Teixeira said. "There are a lot of guys who can go out there and dominate for one game or a couple games in a row. But Roy basically does it for a whole season."
Perhaps more than any other sport, greatness on the baseball diamond is marked by consistency. Potential lies in the stuff - in the velocity and the movement and the location. Greatness, however, lies in the ability to repeat that stuff, to maintain a high level of performance throughout a 162-game meat-grinder of a season, to block out the physical and mental highs and lows that most normal human beings experience over the course of 7 months.
The most impressive thing about Halladay's career is not just his dominance, but his consistent dominance. As impressive as Lee was after the late-July trade that brought him from Cleveland to Philadelphia, it is easy to forget that from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9 he allowed 16 earned runs in three starts - six against the Braves, six against the Astros and four against the Nationals. It was the type of rough patch that even high-caliber pitchers are prone to experience.
Halladay, however, seems immune to such slumps. Only twice since 2001 has he allowed more than three earned runs in three straight starts. In fact, he has done it in back-to-back starts just 14 times during that time, and has allowed more than four runs in back-to-back starts a mere five times.
"I've always had my own expectations and my own ways that I've tried to go about my job as far as preparing myself and competing," Halladay said, "and those are things that I am going to continue to do."
The roots of such focus stretch back to his second full season in the majors. After opening the 2000 season with a 6-3 win over the Royals in which he allowed three runs in seven innings, Halladay's career hit a wall. He allowed at least five runs in each of his next six starts and lost his spot in the Blue Jays' rotation. He started the next season at Class A Dunedin, where he found himself starting his climb to the majors over again.
"I felt like if I was going to be out of baseball, I was going to be out doing things the right way, and doing things to the best of my ability," Halladay said. "I really felt like that was important, that every day I try to get the most out of it I can."
Now, Halladay arrives at the ballpark before the sun rises, and unwinds from his outings with a strenuous workout routine. He moves through the clubhouse at Bright House Field with a stealthy silence, rarely lounging at his locker or watching television on the flat screens at either end of the room. He speaks in calm, measured tones, using the same ruthless efficiency he displays on the mound.
Halladay doesn't say much. And he doesn't have to. He is the rare individual whose mere presence can cause another man to undergo some serious self-examination. Young righthander Kyle Kendrick, who was scheduled to start the season in the bullpen but will now take Joe Blanton's place in the rotation, began to mimic Halladay's early-morning schedule soon after he arrived in Clearwater. Tuffy Gosewisch, a minor league catcher who spent most of spring training in big-league camp, marveled at Halladay's machine-like approach in bullpen sessions.
"There will be four or five pitches in the bullpen - in the entire bullpen session - that are off," Gosewisch said.
Halladay seems to recognize his stature among his peers. If a teammate asks, he will recommend that he read "The ABCs of Pitching," a book on mental performance by renowned sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman. Last month, he spent an afternoon talking to the young pitchers in the Phillies' minor league camp, stressing the importance of hard work and supreme focus.
"Any time you've got a guy of his caliber, everybody is going to want to step their game up," Blanton said.
But Halladay also has earned the right to be self-centered, and he does not hesitate when asked his chief motivation for requesting a trade from the Blue Jays last season.
"The postseason," he said. "That's every pitcher's goal, to pitch in October."
For the Phillies and Halladay, it is a mutual goal. The Phillies believe they traded for a pitcher who will not only help them reach the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but who will give them the type of workhorse ace who can pitch a team to a championship.
Joe Maddon, whose Tampa Bay Rays fell to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, said Halladay is the type of pitcher who dictates the action, even against the best teams in the majors.
"Don't wait for the three-run homer - it's not going to show up," Maddon said. "When we played against him, we wanted to get a lot of things going on. If we got a couple of baserunners, we want guys moving . . . We try to force the action a little bit more."
Maddon's Rays, who have handed Halladay losses in seven of his last 10 decisions against them, are one of the few teams who have had success employing that strategy. But nobody expects the veteran righthander to struggle in his new surroundings.
"He's a hard worker, a guy that's not going to die down, a guy that's going to take the ball every 5 days, even though some days he's probably not feeling 100 percent," Posada said. "He's very strong, mentally. I don't know the guy. I've just seen him facing him. And you can tell the guy takes a lot of pride in what he does. That's good to have."
You'll see. *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.