I wrote about them on an almost-daily basis for a startup sports website that unfortunately never got off the ground. Colleen received a major promotion at work that allowed me the financial freedom to attend six Phillies games that season, including trips to Pittsburgh and Washington (my first time ever seeing them on the road).
By now, I had a small group of people on my Phillies game invite list, but I still planned a game with my dad before anyone else.
I entered Citizens Bank Park that Saturday afternoon with more confidence about a Phillies win than at any previous game since 1993, and for once, I wasn’t looking for a Phillies blowout. The reason? His name was Roy “Doc” Halladay.
The Phillies struck fear in the hearts and minds of every other batting lineup in the National League prior to the season when they magically brought back Cliff Lee after losing him in 2009 – second sweetest Christmas gift ever behind the signed Cal Ripken ball Colleen gave me. The deck was now stacked in the Phillies’ favor with a rotation that included Lee, Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.
But Halladay was an ace among aces. Not only did he run away with the Cy Young Award in 2010, his first year with Philadelphia, he tossed a perfect game in May and threw just the second postseason no-hitter in major league history that October against the Cincinnati Reds. He displayed a full arsenal of pitches that he could throw with absolute precision in any count. I had never seen a pitcher who looked in complete control every time he toed the rubber. Halladay was one of those rare hurlers who became even more unhittable with runners on base.
The New York Mets lineup looked befuddled against Doc over the first three innings. He retired nine of the first 10 men he faced on just 23 pitches, 21 of which were strikes. The Mets got to Halladay in the fourth, leading off with three straight singles to take a 1-0 lead, but he stopped the bleeding there. He bounced back quickly, collecting five of his eight strikeouts in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
The Philly offense finally rewarded Halladay’s strong outing in the bottom of the seventh with a pair of runs. Home plate became a harder destination to reach for the Phillies by 2011 – 4.4 runs per game, compared with 5.1 in 2009 – but scoring wasn’t as pressing of an issue when their starters were going seven or eight innings every night.
Even guys like Halladay tire toward the end of a game, and Doc made things interesting in the ninth before tying down the 2-1 victory. He threw six straight balls to start the inning, and Carlos Beltran nearly took him deep on a fly ball for the first out. After Halladay struck Jason Bay out, the game ended on an unlikely flash of the leather by well-below-average first baseman Ryan Howard. He made a diving stop on a sizzling ground ball by Ike Davis, and then flipped to his pitcher for the 27th out. Similar to 1993, it seemed like no matter how they got it done, the Phillies were going to win.
It was Halladay’s second complete game of the young season, and he also owned five of the team’s 18 wins in April. My dad and I agreed Halladay’s gem was one of the best games we had ever seen together.
Prior to 2011, my dad and I were convinced we were bad luck for the Phillies. Of the nine games we went to between 1994 and 2010, our boys had won just three of them, and one of those was with backup players. The Phillies lost the three additional games I went to with friends over the same period.
Now that the Phightins boasted one of the best pitching rotations in baseball history, my luck suddenly changed. They won all six games that I saw from the stands in 2011, and three of those wins were the team’s only victory in that particular series. The icing on the cake came in September at Citizens Bank Park. I was there with my friend, Bill Paulino*, to witness the Phillies clinch their fifth straight NL East title. They would go on to post the best regular-season record (102-60) in team history.
That magical rotation made it all possible. Halladay, Lee and Hamels all finished in the top 6 in Cy Young voting after the season. More importantly, they helped me truly discover the beautiful art of pitching and to appreciate the 2-1 pitchers duels like my dad.
*Bill and I became friends through our love of the Phillies. How we met was stuff of legends. It was May 29, 2010, and we were gathered with mutual friends at a sports bar in New Castle, Delaware. We were there to watch the Philadelphia Flyers play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but we wound up watching Halladay throw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins.