Strike 1 was his pitch. It was his greatest weapon. He would throw his fastball exactly where he wanted to throw it, and it would arrive quickly and with just a little bit of movement at the end, and it would leave hitters with an impossible choice: to watch it and wait for a better pitch that would never come, or to swing at it despite knowing that it was in a place where they could do nothing with it. Strike 1. It was magic, simple magic.
And it is gone. Five runs in 3 1/3 innings at Atlanta, seven runs in four innings against the Mets Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. One start is a blip, but two starts are a trend. We are not there, not quite yet, but honest people are on the verge of having to ask some very difficult questions. And it is all happening so fast.
Halladay says it is about location. Phils manager Charlie Manuel says it is about location.
"He used to carve up hitters with command and control," Manuel said, almost wistfully.
Back when, Halladay became a disciple of Harvey Dorfman, the sports psychologist. He read the book on pitching, talked to the man, turned himself into this formidable mental machine as a result. Dorfman died in 2011, but you have to believe the lessons he taught, and the words he left behind, continue to instruct Halladay in these days, these toughest of days.
They are only words, though - syllables that fill the time while we all search for movement on pitches that is not there anymore, while we mutter platitudes and wonder exactly where this thing is headed.
One of the measures of a pitcher's competitive tendency is not how he pitches with his "best stuff," but by how he pitches when his stuff has deserted him. Ineffective or poor competitors panic, try to do too much (overkill) or give in to "one of those days" (surrender). A true competitor recognizes the need to compensate for lack of "stuff" with intelligence and persistence. Courage is required, as well, and it is a competitor's instinct to stick to his battle plan, rather than succumbing to disorientation or losing his spirit.
Halladay did battle against the Mets on Monday night - you do have to give him that. He also did adjust after Mets catcher John Buck crushed one of his cutters into the rightfield seats. But living an offspeed life is something Halladay never had to do before, and the adjustment is painful to witness.
The first inclination is to wonder whether he is hurt, but everybody says that isn't the case.
"He says he's healthy [and] our doctors say he's healthy," Manuel said - and he did throw 90ish mph pretty consistently against the Mets.
The second inclination is to wonder whethe it is just time and years of power pitching that have caught him so suddenly. But here is the thing: There is another way to pitch, more about craft and less about power. Other people have done it. With each passing outing, it appears that Halladay will have to do it, too.
But the search for command and control is as difficult to watch as it is exhausting.
"My biggest mentor was Harvey Dorfman," Halladay told reporters after the game, pretty clinical in his dissection of the evening. "He used to always tell me, 'When you try and catch a bird, if you're flailing and trying to grab for it, you're never going to catch it. You have to hold your hands out and let it land in your hands.' And it's the same way with pitching.
"When you're trying to find something, the more you're grasping at it, the more you're reaching for it, the more you're trying to find it, the harder it is to get it. You really have to stick to your routine, stick to your program, prepare every day and let it come to you. I think that becomes important, especially when you want something so bad - when you want it so bad you'd do anything to get it."
There is no doubting the desire. Manuel says he sees it consistently, how intense Halladay is and how upset he gets when he falls short. You can see it on his face and see it as the perspiration begins to wet his cap.
Where will this end? How quickly will this end? The only certainty here is that the questions outnumber the answers, and by a lot.
And that, for now, the last word goes to Harvey Dorfman:
"Paralyze resistance with persistence," Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes used to say. The relentless pitcher works consistently to do just that, offering an internal persistence to his opponent. He has "left nothing out there," after his performance. He is fully extended. Spent. He may he beaten, but he will never surrender.