WASHINGTON - There are several excellent starting pitchers employed around the major league map, who make opposing teams sit up and take notice when their turn in the rotation comes around.
There are only a handful whose ability and tenacity and work ethic allow them to transcend their hundred or so pitches every fifth or sixth day, though. Pitchers who are so good that they take other teams out of their routines, have them counting out the days on their pocket schedules a week or more in advance to see whethery they'll be matched up against them.
In his heyday, Randy Johnson was one of those elite. The Diamondbacks lefthander was so dominant that, in 2000, then-Phillies manager Terry Francona decided to sit All-Star rightfielder Bobby Abreu against him. Which wouldn't have been particularly noteworthy except that it happened on Opening Day.
The latest evidence that the Phillies are blessed with at least one of these special starters came Tuesday night after the Nationals thumped the defending division champions in the series opener.
Washington rightfielder Jayson Werth had a big night with a homer, a double and a walk. But instead of basking in the moment, he was already looking forward.
"With the guys they've got going the next 2 nights, this was a game we definitely needed," he said, referring to Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
Werth was, by no means, conceding anything. But when a pitcher can get the opposing team thinking that way, he has an edge before he throws his first pitch.
Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels are all No. 1-type pitchers. You might have heard something about this. It's been in all the papers.
So now let's go down to the ballpark, where the Phillies' 3-2 win over the Nationals last night outlined a couple of pretty obvious points in glowing neon.
There are few greater comforts for a ballclub than to have a pitcher who they believe will give them a chance to win every time he takes the ball. Stoppers are valuable because they tend to keep teams out of lengthy losing streaks that can wreck a whole season in a week or two.
And while the Phillies have more than one starter who can step into that role on a given night, there's no doubt who the top dog is.
If you don't believe the Nationals knew they were facing the defending National League Cy Young Award winner, just look at what happened in the top of the fourth. With Jimmy Rollins on third and one out in a scoreless game, Washington pulled the infield up. That early in the game, it's a sure sign the opposing manager doesn't expect to score many runs.
The Phillies showed respect in their own way. Through eight innings, Halladay had a 3-0 lead and a two-hit shutout. Standard play, especially this early in the season, would have been to give him a hearty handshake and a pat on the back and bring in closer Jose Contreras to seal the deal.
Charlie Manuel, instead, let Halladay bat in the ninth, then sent him out to try for only the third complete game in the NL this season. And he barely wavered when Rick Ankiel led off with a double and Werth followed with a single that left runners at first and third with nobody out.
But when Laynce Nix singled Ankiel home with one out, the Phillies manager trotted to the mound. By his account, the conversation went as follows:
Manuel: "Well, Roy, here I am."
Halladay: "I've got 'em. I've got 'em."
Manuel: "OK, you've got 'em, then."
Surely, Halladay has earned plenty of rope in these situations. But the reality is that the next batter, Danny Espinosa, reached on an infield single. Another run scored, the tying run was in scoring position, the winning run was on first and there was still only one out.
Manuel never budged. Halladay struck out pinch-hitter Matt Stairs and catcher Pudge Rodriguez on six pitches. So, yes, he got 'em.
He also ended up throwing 123 pitches, which is sure to spark some debate. Manuel indicated later that he wouldn't have let Halladay go much longer than that, but that he's comfortable the big righthander can handle the workload.
That scene - Manuel goes to the mound, pauses briefly, then leaves Halladay in the game while the Phillies fans in the crowd howl with relieved approval - has been played out before, but the dramatic effect never seems to get old.
Last night was the second anniversary of legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas' passing, a shocking event that occurred right in the TV booth at Nationals Park where T-Mac, Wheels and Sarge called the action. Which might be why you could almost hear his unmistakable voice reprising and revising one of his most recognizable calls as the lights blinked out above the field.
Roy Halladay, you are the man . . . *
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