IN THE SECOND inning of his 11th start in the Year of the Pitcher II, Roy Oswalt settled down. Good thing.
This was his sixth start since the foreshadowing game in Arizona where he went out there without a fastball and the D-back broadcasters were effusively praising his "new changeup."
The new changeup fooled hitters used to his high cheese and biting 12-6 curve until he started getting whacked around. Roy left after three innings with five earned runs on his line and his second regular-season loss as a Phil.
He came out of it with a sore lower back and went home to help clean up his tornado-ravaged community of Weir, Miss. He was placed on the disabled list, made a rehab start for the Clearwater Threshers, and again had no fastball.
Well, it's time to give up on the line that he's just shaking off some rust or whatever it is that needs to be shaken off when you are a smallish righthander who performed wondrous feats for most of a decade.
He kicked high like Juan Marichal, came right over the top like Roger Clemens and dropped and drove like Tom Seaver. He powered his fastball at 95 mph-plus and finished off hitters with a 12-6 curveball that reminded people of the dirty yellow hammer that made Nolan Ryan more than just another power pitcher.
But when veteran pitchers lose their fastball, it is like losing your virginity; you never get it back.
In a year when more and more young pitchers are going to radical and dynamic deliveries that are closer to Tim Lincecum's contortionist, long-stride, hidden-ball trick than traditional deliveries taught for a century, Oswalt is a pitcher in successful transition.
He starts to loosen before a start with long-toss, a practice equally condemned and praised by pitching professors representing conflicted schools of thought. Next, he throws about 10 pitches from a windup on the flat, then withdraws to the bullpen with "Chooch'' for the traditional warmup from the mound.
He showed his fastball - it topped at 91 - but was up with his breaking ball and changeup. Starlin Castro doubled home a run off a 78 change, and Aramis Ramirez lofted a two-run homer over the botanicals in left, pounding a 79 change for a 3-0 Cubs lead.
With Charlie Manuel resting Placido Polanco and sitting Dom Brown for Ben Francisco, down 3-0 to anybody is like spotting Usain Bolt 10 meters in a 100-meter race.
While the briefly awakened offense settled down to another long summer's nap, Mandrake Oswalt played the old shell game as well as any carny huckster.
The Cubs had three runs on four hits after the first. They had three runs on five hits after the seventh. And when the Big Piece stuck a fresh fuse in the blown-out breaker panel and singled home Shane Victorino and Chase Utley for a 4-3 lead, lots of folks had to be asking, "Who the hell needs to throw 95, anyway?"
If this is the New Roy, as it appears to be, I like it. His change complements his fastball - he is sinking it more - and his slide piece, as well. He is not kicking as high or finishing as low.
This was Roy's sixth start since his return from Weir. He has allowed 12 earned runs in 36 innings for an ERA of 3.00. His ERA for five April starts, including the D-backs debacle, was 3.33. He also tied his season high of seven innings pitched.
His record after yesterday's more-than-solid effort is a hard-luck 4-4.
I asked Manuel if he likes Oswalt better as a finesse pitcher than a power pitcher. The skipper said he feels the command of his secondary pitches Roy displayed after the shaky first inning actually enhances the effectiveness of his fastball.
"When he is commanding his secondaries, he's not afraid to double up on his power pitches," Charlie said after being ejected in the sixth inning for exchanging biteless barks with plate umpire Alan Porter, after Oswalt was called out on a borderline pitch.
Not many power pitchers have Oswalt's ability to change speeds and angles on their breaking pitches. And the changeup he developed after his trade here last July has given him a more complete tool kit than he had in Houston.
It would have been just another tough loss, however, without one of Ryan Howard's best career efforts against lefthanded pitching.
The Big Piece roped three hits and drove in three runs off lefthanders Doug Davis and All-Star candidate Sean Marshall.
Marshall had not allowed a road RBI all season until Howard drove in a big insurance run for Cliff Lee in the seventh inning on Saturday. And he beat the shift three times yesterday, including the adroit at-bat that plated Victorino and Utley. The guy we all insist can't hit lefthanders in the butt with a handful of sand is 9-for-his-last-15 against them. His 53 RBI in 66 games put him on pace for 130.
And counting . . .