Halladay showing promising signs of return to form

Ace stays focused during Phillies' big innings, getting feel for sinkers, cutters

Halladay showing promising signs of return to form

TAMPA, Fla. -- It might not yet be the time to proclaim that Roy Halladay is back to normal -- to say that he's a completely different pitcher than the one who sputtered to a slow start last spring, never got on track and had to battle through one of the worst seasons of his career.

But, as Phillies manager Charlie Manuel put it after Halladay's second start of the spring, "he's definitely getting there."

Halladay made his second Grapefruit League appearance Friday against the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field, giving up one run on three hits and a walk while striking out three over 2 1/3 innings. His usually pinpoint command appeared to evade him at times, including one curveball that skidded all the way to the backstop, but he threw 44 pitches (26 strikes), with his fastball clocking in around 88-91 mph as he focused mostly on mixing in cutters and curveballs.

The most interesting test for Halladay came as a result of what the Phillies' lineup did in the second and third innings Friday.

Halladay said he struggled last year with having to get back on the mound after sitting in the dugout, especially after Philadelphia would put up big offensive innings with long rallies. Dealing with lower back problems that eventually led to upper back and shoulder issues and affected his delivery, Halladay spent this offseason working on strengthening his lower half and core to improve his lower-body strength.

So when the Phillies put up two runs in each of the first three innings and turned over the lineup twice, Halladay was pleased with the way he managed to bounce back. In his mind, that was a step in the right direction.

"Before, those were the innings that would kill me, so I feel good right now, the way I feel physically and conditioning-wise," Halladay said. "Really, I think that is ahead of everything else, and it's a matter of just fine-tuning the pitches. I've never thrown cutters and curveballs, really, in Spring Training, so it's kind of normal for me to start mixing them in right now and trying to get comfortable with it.

"The up-and-downs and the long innings got me more than anything. So physically I feel real good, and strength-wise I feel good. Really, I feel like now it's a matter of more regular Spring Training, just fine-tuning those pitches, getting comfortable."

But this is still Spring Training, of course, and Halladay wasn't perfect. He missed the strike zone up and away, especially to right-handed hitters, saying that was a product of trying to work on sinkers and cutters outside. He had two meetings with catcher Steven Lerud in the first inning, changing signs and talking through things with a backstop he'd never thrown to.

He admitted his cutter still has "a little ways to go," and he was trying to get an early feel for his curveball. He uncorked one of them for a wild pitch in the first inning, allowing Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli to take second base after reaching on an infield single.

"It just shows that he's human and he lets one fly every now and then," Manuel said. "One gets away from him, he's all right."

"Just getting a feel for it, getting it comfortable in your hand," added Halladay. "More than anything, I felt that was the big thing -- sometimes it just didn't feel comfortable in my hand. It's just a matter of throwing it more. I'd thrown eight of them, I think, going into today. Just continuing to throw it and get comfortable with it."

But those are normal Spring Training kinks for any pitcher, even Halladay. The only out-of-the-ordinary part of Halladay's outing, really, was the conversation about cars he found himself having with former Yankee Reggie Jackson after he exited the game.

Cervelli knocked Halladay out of the game with a one-out double in the third inning, and Halladay was charged for the run after Robinson Cano recorded an RBI single into left field off southpaw Cesar Jimenez, who spent last year in Triple-A.

Where the two-time Cy Young Award winner goes from here remains to be seen. He's next scheduled to take the mound Wednesday against the Nationals, and he'll continue to build up strength and mix in all his pitches for the remaining month of Spring Training.

We won't truly know if Halladay is completely over what bothered him last year until the regular season is under way. But he says he feels good, and right now, that's enough for Manuel to believe he's on his way to pitching like the old Roy Halladay.

"He's coming along. He's ahead of where he was this time last year. He's going to be fine," Manuel said. "I like where Roy's at, really. We ... bring him up slow, get him to 100 [pitches] and he holds up, he'll be ready and healthy."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.