Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay threw a grand total of four wild pitches in 390 innings over the last two seasons. In the past 10 seasons, he's walked only 346 batters in 2,111 2/3 innings.
Halladay, therefore, has been one of baseball's most efficient pitchers with an uncanny command of the strike zone for a decade. So when he throws a pitch behind a batter, it's difficult to think it was simply an errant pitch.
But that's where a pitch sailed on March 6 at Bright House Field when the Washington Nationals made a rare trip across Florida to play the Phillies in a Grapefruit League game in Clearwater.
In the third inning, Washington right-hander Stephen Strasburg hit Chase Utley in the left leg with a pitch. An inning later, Halladay threw a ball behind Washington's Tyler Moore with two outs and no one on base.
"It slipped," Halladay said of the pitch. "I mean, really, I think that's not necessarily the case, but we do need to protect our guys to an extent. I'm not saying that's what happened. ... I don't think you want to do it, but, you know, it wouldn't have been the worst thing had it got him after getting one of our good guys."
For the first time since 2007, the Phillies entered spring training as an underdog in the National League East. The incident with Washington, the defending division champ, brought to life both the animosity in the rivalry and the eagerness the Phillies have to regain top-dog status in the NL East.
After beating up on Washington during their five-year run as division champs, the Phils saw the upstart Nationals jump out to an early lead in the race last year, and Philadelphia was never able to recover.
The rivalry reached a zenith in May, when Cole Hamels plunked rookie phenom Bryce Harper with a pitch, admitted he did it on purpose and then served a five-game suspension. Harper went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award, and the Nationals claimed their first division title since moving to Washington. The Phillies sat out of postseason play for the first time since 2006.
Although Halladay said his pitched "slipped," it was widely interpreted as a purpose pitch both in the game and within the bigger picture of the rivalry between the teams.
For his part, Strasburg said he wasn't trying to hit Utley, who has missed a large chunk of the last two seasons with chronic knee pain.
"I don't have any reason to throw at him, do I?" Strasburg said. "I mean, I don't understand why they would think I was throwing at him. ... It's spring training. If you're going to throw at someone or send a message in spring training, go ahead."