A professional athlete's psychological exterior can sometimes appear impenetrable, particularly when that professional athlete is Harry Leroy Halladay. But every so often a crack appears, and you are reminded that even a once-in-a-generation player is not immune to the psychological stresses that afflict the members of the general population. One of those moments occurred on Tuesday night, as Halladay stood amidst a gaggle of microphones and notepads and cameras and admitted what should be obvious to us all. The Phillies are pressing. Halladay. Hunter Pence. Shane Victorino. All of them. A six-week slog through low-scoring losses and jarring headlines and crescendoing boos has taken its toll on this team, and I get the sense that we have reached a juncture that could prove to be one of the more dramatic turning points of this season.
Halladay spoke in his usual measured tone, but it was tinged with a sort of pleading honesty as he provided one of the more accurate and eloquent summations of the state of the team.
"The first two months have been tough for all of us," he said. "You do everything you can to fix it, and that's it. I think it gets back to going out and trying to play a little bit more loose and focus on your job. I think we've got, including myself, a lot of guys that are going out and trying to carry the weight of the team, and you can't play that way, and I think we've seen that. I think everybody is trying to pick up slack for what we may not be doing or guys we may be missing and all that, and that only seems to compound the problem. You put it behind you, but I think a lot of us just need to go out and play the game and have fun playing the game. You start pressing and you start trying to do things that you don't need to do and it makes things worse.
"Charlie says it all the time. You do it because you want to, not because you have to. I think it's hard when things aren't going the way you want them to go, but that's how you play the game, and ultimately it is a game, and I think that's important to remember. It's tough to do in places like this, where fans expect a lot, media expect a lot, players expect a lot, but I think it's important to try and find a way to keep that in mind and try to go out and play that way regardless of your own expectations and everyone elses. You've got to get to just playing the game and enjoying playing the game."
At times, Halladay seemed to be addressing all persons involved, from his teammates to us in the media to the front office. He is a player who likes to lead by example, and it is a hell of an example. But, he was asked, would he ever choose to deliver the message in a closed-door setting?
"Yeah, I would," Halladay said with a bit of uncertainty in his voice. "I think finding the right time to do that is tough. Guys are beating themselves up and you have a bad day and it's not necessarily the thing you want to hear or anybody else wants to hear. And it doesn't even have to be a team gathering. Just talking to guys and being teammates. We've got a good group. We've got a great chemistry. We've played good at times, and we haven't at times, and it's just a matter of going out and enjoying it. The more we press, it's not going to take care of itself. You prepare as well as you can and go out and let it all hang out."
Halladay seemed bothered by home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom's decision to eject Carlos Ruiz from the game with two outs in the Nationals' four-run third inning. According to both Halladay and Charlie Manuel, Ruiz told Cederstrom that he thought an 0-1 pitch to Danny Espinosa was a strike, then turned around to look at the ump.
"He didn't turn around, he didn't get in his face, he didn't use obscene language," Halladay said. "He simply said the pitch was a strike. He said it a couple times. I don't know. I've never seen one like that before. And it's unfortunate, because he's our best player and he gets run out of the game, really for saying a pitch is a strike. I've never seen one like that."
What struck me most was the way Halladay labelled Ruiz as the Phillies' "best player." He did so off-handedly, as if there was no doubt about it. At this moment, there really isn't a doubt. But I don't know that I have ever heard anybody outside of the media or the fanbase refer to Ruiz as the Phillies' "best player." Most underrated player, definitely. Most valuable player, at times. Most likeable player, almost always. But "best" is a description that does not come with a qualification. It is a recognition of pure talent, and anytime an athlete on the level of Roy Halladay labels somebody the best at something, it deserves a special note. If the Phillies are going to turn this thing around and rid themselves of the existential weight that seems to be strapped on top of their shoulders, it is guys like Halladay and Ruiz who are going to lead the way.
Heading into a four-game series against the team that ended their 2011 season and sent them into the sprial from which they now must emerge, it will be fascinating to see how these Phillies respond.