WASHINGTON - Three hours before game time in the nation's capital, and the ballpark seems consumed by martial law. There are bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, ominous-looking guns and badges hooked to the hips of ominous-looking men and women, eyeing every passerby as not just a reporter or vendor or patron, but as a potential security threat.
Inside the visitors' clubhouse, however, there is peace. In fact, if a bomb did go off, somebody might have to tap Roy Halladay on the shoulder and let him know. He is sitting in a folding chair, an MP3 player streaming music into his ears, a look in his eyes that suggests he has entered a place that nobody is welcome to visit. Everything around him - the teammates and reporters and clubhouse staff - seems to exist in a mystical realm where objects are transparent and humans do not speak. He is staring at his right hand, which at the moment is gripping a baseball on one of the seams, his index and middle fingers pressed together like he is preparing to deliver a pitch.
"He's working on each of his pitches," pitching coach Rich Dubee said later, "making sure each one is where he wants it to be."
Baseball is a results-based business, so any recap of the Phillies' 11-1 domination of the Washington Nationals yesterday afternoon requires a thorough accounting. New third baseman Placido Polanco hit a grand slam and finished with a career-high six RBI. First baseman Ryan Howard used his second at-bat to launch a two-run homer into the second deck in rightfield. Shortstop and leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins, who began last season with a 3-month slump, hit an RBI triple and reached base four times.
But after it was all over, after the Phillies put the finishing touches on their first Opening Day victory since 2005, the topic du jour was process, specifically the one employed by the newly acquired veteran righthander who started his morning by practicing grips. The results? They should be familiar to anybody who has followed baseball box scores over the past decade. Halladay pitched seven innings, allowed one run, struck out nine, and needed just 88 pitches to get the game to the young mopup relievers who replaced him in the eighth. But it was the process that made it hard for a catcher like Carlos Ruiz to suppress a smile in the clubhouse after the win.
From the moment Ruiz saw his new pitcher in the lobby of the team hotel yesterday morning, he could see it. Even in spring training, Halladay had carried himself with a sense of purpose, eyes rarely straying from whatever task was at hand. Early on, that task was establishing his fastball and cutter. Later, it moved to the curveball. In a minor league game against the Yankees in late-March, the goal was to refine the changeup. At each step, Ruiz joined him, worked with him, familiarized himself with the individual idiosyncrasies that every starter possesses. And as various Phillies players waited for cabs to the ballpark, he could see that a new phase had begun.
"You could see it in his face," Ruiz said. "The season starts right now."
It started with a hiccup. Two of the first three batters Halladay faced reached base, Nyjer Morgan legging out an infield single and Ryan Zimmerman driving an RBI double to right-center. In the second inning, Ivan Rodriguez led off with a slicing double to rightfield. The Phillies are familiar with these types of things happening on Opening Day. In a loss to the Atlanta Braves last year, Brett Myers allowed all four of his runs in the first two innings. In 2008, Myers allowed four runs in the fifth inning of a 11-6 loss to the Nationals.
But even with a man on second with no outs and a one-run deficit in the second inning, the look on Halladay's face did not change. Neither did the process. Earlier, in a locked conference room across from the dining area in the clubhouse, Halladay had joined Ruiz and Dubee for a meeting about that day's Nationals lineup. Often, Dubee will do a majority of the talking. With Halladay, that isn't the case. Earlier in the morning, the 32-year-old had sat at his locker studying one of the many notebooks he has compiled over his decade-plus in the majors. With Dubee and Ruiz, he ran down the plan for each hitter, his previous at-bats against them fresh in his mind.
Those plans did not change because of the early turmoil. Ruiz kept flashing the signs he thought his pitcher should use, and Halladay kept nodding and throwing. Myers would often alter his plan, shaking off the catcher for a pitch he felt more comfortable throwing.
Halladay, Ruiz said, did not shake him off once.
He escaped the second-inning jam by striking out No. 8 hitter Ian Desmond and pitcher John Lannan and then jamming Morgan with a cutter on the hands for an inning-ending line out.
In his final five innings of work, Halladay allowed just three balls off the ground. Nine of his last 10 balls in play were grounders.
"Once he started using his pitches with better location or command, I felt like he was fine," manager Charlie Manuel said. "It looked like he had control of the game."
Meanwhile, the offense gave him an opportunity for an early exit. The Phillies scored five runs in the fourth inning - one of them coming on an infield single that resulted in Halladay's second career RBI - and got a grand slam from Polanco in the seventh. Every member of the lineup finished with a hit. Rollins went 2-for-4 with two walks.
It was a picturesque day for a team hoping to win its third straight National League title. The skies were sunny and the temperature lingered in the 80s, and President Obama, who went high and wide with his ceremonial first pitch, emerged unscathed.
Halladay, who was making his eighth straight Opening Day start, did not allow himself to marinate in the pregame pageantry. But he smiled when discussing the result.
"Being able to take yourself out of the situations and keep your mind on your approach is important," Halladay said. "Especially in a time like this where there will be a lot going on - it's important to be able to extract yourself from a lot of those things."
Turns out, there is a certain beauty in process. *