ATLANTA - Frustrated.
That was the first word out of a distraught Roy Halladay's mouth following an odd outing in a string of troubling starts.
On Wednesday night, Halladay needed 95 pitches to get 10 outs, nine of which came on strikeouts. He also served up two home runs and was out of the game before the fourth inning was over.
But perhaps it was also the most predictable of outcomes when you matched up the aging, scuffling Halladay against the new-look, free-swinging Atlanta Braves.
The Braves have five guys in their lineup who have hit at least 20 home runs in a season before, but those same five players combined for 739 strikeouts in 2012.
The problem for Halladay and the Phillies, however, is it only takes a couple of balls to leave the playing field to change the complexion of the game. And no starting pitcher is a successful one if he leaves before five innings, let alone four, regardless of an historic strikeout total.
Halladay's decline from staff ace to enigma continued as the Braves bashed a Phillies starter for the second time in as many games in a 9-2 victory at Turner Field.
"Frustrated," said Halladay, who looked mentally spent hours after he exited the game. "I should have gone deeper than that. I wasn't aggressive early in the count and went deep into counts and that's the most frustrating part, really."
A rising pitch count led to an early exit for Halladay and, eventually, to the Phillies' second straight loss to the Braves to open the 2013 season. The Phils will try to avoid a three-game sweep in Atlanta Thursday night before returning to Citizens Bank Park for the home opener on Friday against Kansas City.
Halladay was down 2-0 after facing just three hitters. The Braves sent eight batters to the plate in a three-run first inning.
"I think two pitches were hit hard and one was halfhearted and the other was a mistake," Halladay said. "Those cost me a total of three runs. I'm going to clean that up and be more aggressive. I've got to be more aggressive getting ahead of guys and putting guys away . . . We've got to get ahead of guys quicker. But we'll fix it. It will be fixed and the results will be better."
Halladay briefly showed some moxie, striking out five straight batters from the end of the first to the start of the third, but even that stretch of success highlighted the larger problem at hand. Halladay was regularly inducing swings and misses on his off-speed pitches: curveballs and changeups.
But when he got behind in the count and had to go hard, Halladay had getting the ball down. The results were walks when he didn't locate (three in 3 1/3 innings) or home runs when he had to pitch to the heart of the plate (two homers, accounting for three of the five runs he allowed).
"I thought he had a tough first inning . . . but after he got out of that I felt like he did OK," manager Charlie Manuel said. "His velocity was 88-92. It's starting to move a little bit. I've seen improvement the last three or four times out there.
"What do we always talk about about him? It's location, location, location, location. And location is how you win games, and on nights you don't have your good heater that's when location really comes into play. That's what hurt him early."
Wednesday night was similar to his spring story: Halladay struggled with command and was hit routinely when he veered away from throwing off-speed pitches. And a pitcher that relies solely on off-speed stuff will become a predictable pitcher awfully quick.
The Phillies may continue to wear a brave face - general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. briefly said he was "encouraged" with the swings and misses Halladay got - but it will be difficult for them to keep up with the Braves and Washington Nationals into the summer if Halladay is unreliable.
Halladay, who turns 36 next month, is coming off his worst season in over a decade. After winning his second Cy Young Award in 2010 and finishing as the National League runner-up in 2011, the pitcher long considered to be the best in the game went 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA in 25 starts in 2012.
Halladay landed on the disabled list in May, missed 7 weeks but never regained the consistency that defined him for his career. In his second-to-last start of 2012, Halladay was gone after 1 2/3 innings after giving up seven runs in an eventual 10-8 defeat to the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
On a soggy night when patrons were decked out in ponchos, Halladay still couldn't figure out the Braves.
After striking out the side in the second, Halladay put two runners on with a single and walk while also unleashing a wild pitch in a scoreless third. He needed 79 pitches to get through the first three innings.
In the fourth, Halladay was greeted with a solo home run by eight-hole hitter Evan Gattis. Two batters later, Manuel slowly walked to the mound to take the ball from his starting pitcher.
Afterward, Halladay said he was trying to be "too picky, too fine" and that led to deep counts. He needed 40 pitches to get through the first inning.
"I was just trying to be too picky, too fine," Halladay said. "Last year, feeling the way you do, you think, 'I can't throw an 86-mph fastball to a general zone, it's going to get hit.' So you get to the point where you start to get picky. I'm getting to the point where I'm building arm strength and it's continuing to grow every time I pitch, so I can start opening things up and not try to be so fine - which is what I've always done.
"I've always relied on movement and not tried to pick sides of the plate. And there were times where we were picking corners of the plate. I need to open it up and let the movement take care of itself."
If you were looking for any silver linings, Halladay induced 15 swings and misses in his 95 pitches. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Halladay is the only pitcher since 1916 to strike out nine batters in an outing less than 3 2/3 innings.
His off-speed stuff was effective, at least when matched up against an aggressive Braves lineup. But beginning at the start of the 2012 season, Halladay has an 11.57 ERA in his last five starts against that same, high-powered Atlanta offense.
"I still say he's going to be all right," Manuel said. "I think he's going to get better and that he'll give us a consistent seven innings when he finds his location."