It's a sad thing to watch a professional athlete go from very good to very bad, and not be able to fix it.

You see speedsters who can no longer run like a greyhound.

You see outfielders with great arms and coverage ability not be able to get to fly balls, and even when they do, they can't throw anyone out.

You see the best hitters in the game go from .340 averages to the mid-.200s, or 30 home runs a season down to 10.

You see five-star players deteriorate so much they end up being designated hitters or caricatures of themselves trying to hang on for the game or for the money.

You see Cy Young Award-winning pitchers struggling to get anyone out, watching the ball fly all over the park, watching their earned-run-average soar and watching as losses mount up faster than the wins.

It happens to all players eventually.

But it's a hard thing to witness.

The arm strength disappears. The hand-eye coordination goes south. Muscles fail. Joints start to hurt. The knees, hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and ankles aren't what they were before years of abuse began to shut them down.

It was a difficult thing to watch as Mickey Mantle slowed down to a crawl, hardly able to drag himself around the bases at the end of his career.

It was more of the same with Warren Spahn and Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer and on and on and on, as they neared the ends of their pitching careers.

Old guys start to break down bit by bit, and then one day you recognize there's not much left. The pop is gone. And for good.

That's what age and injury do to a professional baseball player.

And that seems to be what's happening to one of the best pitchers in the last 15 years in the Major Leagues.

I'm talking about Roy Halladay, of course. That's Roy Halladay, age 35.

Seven games into this season and the Phillies' ace is pitching like a No. 4 or No. 5 pitcher in his team's rotation. His velocity is down by three or four mph, at least, only averaging about 88 mph on his fastball.

Worse, his ability to hit spots -- good spots -- seems to have become a lost art.

And he's constantly working from behind in the count -- not even the greatest pitchers are able to get away with that for long. There aren't enough first-pitch strikes with his fast ball. And it's all uphill from there.

There is clearly something very wrong with Doc Halladay. The eyes say that's true, if the heart does not.

Tuesday night, against the Cleveland Indians, Doc give up eight runs -- all eight earned -- including three two-run home runs, and couldn't make it through the fourth inning. He got creamed.

True, the three starts before that one were respectable, but the two before that were disasters. So he's barely pitched half decent in half of his outings. So far, he's dominated no one.

His record, 2 wins and 3 losses, is not beyond recovery, but it's not the kind of start to a season one expects from an eight-time All-Star and a two-time Cy Young winner.

Two years ago, Halladay allowed 10 home runs in 233 innings. Last year, it was 18 home runs in 156 innings. This season, after six games, he's allowed eight home runs in 32 innings.

At the current rate, by the time he gets to 156 innings this season, he'll have given up 68 homers.

Clearly there is reason for concern.

Combined with the season he had last year, when he suffered a shoulder injury, the red flags are flying on Halladay's career.

He has been and continues to be a class act. He knows he's not right, but true to his competitive nature, he continues to give maximum effort. He treats the media and fans with respect and shows up for work every day with his head held high.

So he deserves -- and I hope he will get -- every opportunity to be successful for the Phils before this season ends.

Still, it's awful to watch him struggle. He finished the month of April with a 6.75 ERA for goodness sakes. That is not the Halladay we've come to know and love as baseball fans.

But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Halladay will figure something out. Something with his mental approach. Something with his delivery. Something with his release point. Something consistently low and on the outside corner, followed by low and slightly off the outside corner.

Just something. Anything.

Because I'm not ready to see him go yet.

Sports columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Thurs days. E-mail: lhick