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The rally the Nationals put together against Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay in the ninth inning on Wednesday night was, in some sense, a sign of encouragement. Four of the first five hitters in a depleted lineup came to the plate, jumped on early strikes and put up base hits to cut two-thirds out of the Phillies' 3-0 lead.
But in reality, it might have been the only approach the Nationals could have used against Halladay that was going to work. The two-time Cy Young Award winner, quite simply, has one of the nastiest repertoires in the game; he can cut or sink his fastball, and on the rare nights that's not enough to get him past most hitters, he's also got a knuckle curve and a modified version of his old split-fingered fastball that now works as a changeup.
He bears down on hitters like a charging rhinoceros, throwing first-pitch strikes almost 10 percent more frequently than the average pitcher and backing hitters into a corner so quickly, they soon find themselves in an 0-2 count, guessing which one of his four pitches he's going to throw.
Jim Riggleman meets with the media following the Nats' 3-2 loss to the Roy Halladay led Phillies
"You don't want to (work deep in the count against him)," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's not trying to make the perfect pitch early in the count. He wants to get ahead, like all good pitchers do. He's trying to get strike one as quickly as possible."
Halladay routinely leads the majors in complete games, and when he's on, a no-hitter is always a possibility; he threw a perfect game last May and the second-ever postseason no-hitter in Game 1 of last year's National League Division Series.
That the Nationals rallied against him at all, falling 3-2 in Halladay's first complete game of the year, is some kind of minor achievement. But in a division that can throw as many nasty pitchers as any in baseball, the Nationals are quickly finding one they can't ever seem to topple.
The 2010 Cy Young winner allowed a run in the first inning of the season against the Nationals last year. That was the only one he'd give up to them all year. And on Wednesday night, he took a two-hit shutout into the ninth inning, running his personal scoreless streak against the Nationals to 30 innings.
Halladay threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 35 batters he faced, striking out nine, walking two and allowing just one extra-base hit. And the two runs they scored in the ninth inning were the most the Nationals have put up against him since he came to Philadelphia.
It appeared, early in the inning, that they might have found an approach that worked against Halladay. None of the first five hitters who faced Halladay in the ninth waited until after the second pitch to swing, knowing they might not see a better pitch later in the count. Halladay threw different first pitches - four-seam fastball, curveball, cutter, changeup - to the first four hitters of the ninth inning. Two swung, and Laynce Nix put his into play for a single that brought the Nationals within two. When Danny Espinosa beat out an infield hit, pumping his fist at first base, the Nationals were within a run and had the tying run in scoring position.
But their last two hitters of the inning - Matt Stairs and Ivan Rodriguez, who have a combined 40 major league seasons between them - departed from that approach for some reason. Halladay threw them six pitches, and Rodriguez was the only one to swing at one. After that, he watched Halladay clip the corner of the plate for a game-ending strike three, and he quickly spun around to protest the call to home plate umpire Alan Porter.
The Nationals did their damage too late, though. They played poorly behind John Lannan, who gamely fought Halladay for six innings, and took punches from Halladay for the first eight innings.
And when they found something that worked, they couldn't sustain it long enough for anything but a moral victory.
"I think we were just trying to get a good pitch to hit," manager Jim Riggleman said. "When you're down a few, sometimes you'll take a strike. But we didn't see any point in doing that. If we got a good pitch to hit, we wanted our guys swinging. And (Rick) Ankiel set the tone for that - he went up there to zone a pitch up, and if he got something he liked, he was going to swing. The second pitch was to his liking, and of course, Jayson (Werth) did what he did. Some of those pitches were a little questionable, I think, but Halladay kind of reached back and found something extra."