Inside the Phillies: On opening day, Halladay in a zone

Roy Halladay relaxes with Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee after Halladay wrapped up his seven innings of work.
Roy Halladay relaxes with Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee after Halladay wrapped up his seven innings of work.
Posted: April 06, 2010

WASHINGTON - When the Phillies paid Roy Halladay $60 million to pitch in the spotlight, they never anticipated he'd be so good at avoiding it.

The Cy Young winner's debut as a Phillie and a National Leaguer was supposed to be a big deal, transforming opening day into a Halladay holiday, especially for all those red-clad Philadelphians who formed a traffic clot on southbound I-95 Monday morning.

Instead, by the time the Phillies' 11-1 rout of the Nationals began, Halladay's name had come off the marquee, supplanted by Donovan McNabb, President Obama, several wounded war heroes, even Bud Selig.

And when, at just past 1 p.m. on the summerlike afternoon, he finally made his way to the mound, you half-expected someone to cue the dogs and children.

Nearly everyone at field level got caught up in the extended pregame circus.

McNabb buzz was ubiquitous. The president visited both locker rooms, shook hands with every player and the umpires. Then, both teams stood on the dugout steps to watch Obama's throw and to applaud those honored veterans who'd been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Halladay, though, the whole scene might just as well have been taking place in Toronto, where for the first time in eight seasons the Blue Jays had to find another opening-day starter.

As the stifled Nationals learned, the rich righthander is able to focus as well as he pitches.

On Monday, he arrived at this nondescript ballpark on the Anacostia River just after 8 a.m., five hours before game time, and immediately immersed himself in his reclusive rituals.

As later-arriving Phillies chattered excitedly about McNabb's forced relocation from Philly to D.C., Halladay, headphones on, eyes shut, was lost in his music - the identity of which he said was "my secret."

"Fortunately, I didn't have to talk to anybody about [the trade]," he said later. "I just put my headphones on and go about my business."

The Eagles-Redskins deal was such an overwhelming topic of conversation in the nation's capital that commissioner Selig, looking for some baseball love on his hotel-room's TV early Monday, finally switched it off in frustration.

"That's all they talked about," said a dismayed Selig of the Easter Sunday transaction that made McNabb a Redskin.

As Halladay's teammates greeted the president in their clubhouse and watched him convince scouts everywhere that he's got no future - and probably had very little past - in baseball, the Phillies pitcher was oblivious in the left-field bullpen, getting ready to stifle the Nationals.

"That's all part of it," he said after his economical and effective 88-pitch, 1-run outing, "being able to take yourself out of those situations and keep your mind on your approach. In a town like this, there's going to be a lot going on, so it's important to be able to extract yourself."

His catcher said that when the pregame smoke cleared and the game began, he encountered a Halladay he hadn't seen yet.

"Today," said Carlos Ruiz, "you could see his face was different. It was like, 'OK, the season starts right now.' "

He scuffled through a 19-pitch first inning, during which a Ryan Zimmerman double on a misplaced sinker produced Washington's only run. Then he found the strike zone and himself, shutting out the Nationals on just 69 pitches in his final six innings.

After 12 seasons with the Blue Jays, his trade, and not McNabb's, had recharged his batteries.

"This was a lot different," Halladay said when asked to compare this start to his previous seven opening-day outings. "It's been fun for me. . . . Nothing against Toronto, but this kind of gives you a renewed energy."

Something all the stuff percolating around him Monday couldn't do.

When Obama's sizable entourage arrived about noon, it created security and traffic logjams and, very soon, further evidence that the president didn't grow up playing baseball in Hawaii.

This was the 100th anniversary of William Taft's starting the tradition of presidents throwing out first pitches. But the rotund Taft only threw it a few feet from his box seat. Obama went to the mound - Halladay's mound - where, out of an awkward stretch motion, the leader of the free world unleashed a looping lefthanded toss more reminiscent of Stevie Nicks than Steve Carlton.

"I was yelling 'Balk' as soon as he threw it," said Phils backup catcher Brian Schneider.

(Asked whether his thoroughly outclassed team, which showed little life during the game, had been moved by the president's visit, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said: "That's like asking Mrs. Lincoln how she enjoyed the rest of the play.")

And when the pregame player introductions touched off dueling verbal reactions in the split-personality crowd, Halladay was in the bullpen with Ruiz and pitching coach Rich Dubee.

Finally, in the fifth inning, just when the distracted crowd was beginning to refocus on Halladay's stellar performance, Selig decided to stage a news conference in a sixth-floor hallway.

During that session, the commissioner defended baseball's competitive balance and the Halladay trade, even though Toronto seemed to have had little choice but to send its best pitcher to Philadelphia.

"Our competitive balance is as good as any sport's," Selig said.

By then, this game's competitive balance had ended. The Phillies were up, 5-1, thanks in part to a swinging-bunt RBI single by Halladay in just his second NL at-bat that kept alive a five-run fourth-inning. Earlier, Charlie Manuel had ordered him to bunt.

"It's funny," Halladay said, "But I didn't have one chance to bunt in spring training. I feel like that's something I can get a lot better at."

As for his pitching, it's fine just as it is.

"I felt good out there," he said. "I'm hoping to keep doing the same thing for the rest of the season. I just have to keep my focus."

No problem there, either.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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