NEW YORK - Roy Oswalt missed the strike zone with the first three pitches he threw against the Mets on Friday night at Citi Field.
Irritated, the righthander took a few quick steps toward catcher Carlos Ruiz, fired the ball toward him, and motioned to home plate umpire Laz Diaz for a new one. He went on to give the Phillies six solid innings.
Oswalt was within one out of five shutout innings before Chase Utley botched a pop-up that led to a run and temporarily awakened the Mets in the Phillies' messy 6-4 win.
This was Oswalt's third start since he came off the disabled list with lower back inflammation on May 16. In those three starts, he has allowed three earned runs over 18 innings for a 1.50 ERA. And he has nothing to show for it - a no-decision in a 2-1 loss at St. Louis; a loss despite holding Texas to one run over seven innings; and another no-decision on Friday.
Those numbers say a lot about the caliber of pitcher Oswalt is, because there are signs he has yet to reach the top of his game since coming off the DL. He's gone four consecutive games with three or fewer strikeouts for the first time in his 11-year career, one in which he's averaged eight strikeouts a game. His fastball, which often tops out at 94 m.p.h., was consistently around 91. And he was pulled after throwing 91 pitches when manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee sensed he was wearing down a bit.
Nonetheless, Oswalt has the wherewithal to adjust. He's used more than his fastball to be one of the top righthanders in the game over the last decade, which is why he put the Phillies in position to win in each of the three starts he's had since his return.
"I think he was starting to get a little tired at the end," Manuel said. "He only gave up one run. The other was an unearned run. Rich and I both thought it was time for him to come out."
A pitching staff that has Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels makes it easy to overlook the fact that Oswalt is having a terrific season despite the aching back and personal angst caused by the tornadoes near his family's home in Mississippi. He's only allowed more than two earned runs in a game once in eight starts, and that was the injury-shortened game April 26 at Arizona.
Oswalt's ERA, which is at 2.60, is second only to Halladay's among the Phillies' four aces.
After the game, as Oswalt answered questions in his low monotone, he seemed amused when asked if he felt he was all the way back from the injury.
"It's fine," he said when asked whether he was still building strength in his arm.
"I'm feeling a little bit better as we go. I feel pretty good."
When he was asked basically the same question again, phrased differently, he smiled and said: "Why is everybody asking me that? I've given up but three runs in 20 innings [actually 18], so I think I'm doing OK."
If not for Oswalt's two plate appearances, he would have left the game trailing rather than tied, 2-2. His sacrifice bunt in the third set up Jimmy Rollins' run-scoring hit. In the fifth, he scored John Mayberry Jr. with a single.
He admitted he momentarily lost focus after Utley's error. Justin Turner and Carlos Beltran followed the error with singles for the unearned run.
"It seems like you kind of lose focus," he said. "You're focused on the next inning, and you're still out there. I left a pitch up there to the new guy at third base [Turner]. I had him two strikes, and it was just a bad pitch I left it out over the plate. Other than that, I gave up some hits here and there. But they mostly weren't hard hits."