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Phil, it's time for Hughes to go

TORONTO -- To paraphrase the old Groucho Marx line, Phil Hughes doesn't have to leave in a Huff. He can leave in a minute and a Huff.

But he has got to leave -- the New York Yankees' rotation, that is -- if his team is going to have any chance of playing baseball this October.

David Huff, anyone?

We'll have more on Phil Hughes' possible replacement in a moment, but first, a word about Hughes himself.

It's already a foregone conclusion that Hughes will not be a Yankee next year. He will be a free agent, and I can't see the Yankees bidding seriously for a pitcher who is so profoundly unsuited to pitch in his home ballpark. Hughes will probably find a home with a West Coast team, and perhaps in the National League.

But for their own sake, the Yankees must take steps to make Hughes an ex-Yankee starter today. Maybe they can use him out of the bullpen -- he was very effective there in 2009, and as a two-pitch pitcher, is probably more suited to relieve anyway -- but with just 31 games left to play and 4½ games to make up in the wild-card race, they really can't afford to send him out six more times, with six precious games in his hand.

Hughes was not the sole reason the Yankees lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 5-2 on Monday at the Rogers Centre, frittering away whatever momentum they might have gained with their stirring win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. He had plenty of help from Ichiro Suzuki, who dropped a very catchable fly ball in right field in the fifth, leading to two unearned runs. He also got little or no help from his offense, which went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, failing to capitalize on loaded bases in the fifth and a runner on third with one out in the sixth.

But to paraphrase another wise man, momentum only takes you as far as the next day's starting pitcher, and with the Rays' R.A. Dickey frustrating the Yankees -- with the exception of Alex Rodriguez, who made a knuckle sandwich of one of Dickey's offerings for a solo HR in the fifth, his third of the season and No. 650 for his career -- and Hughes emboldening the Blue Jays, any surge the Yankees might have enjoyed from Sunday's 11-inning win was dissipated about an hour into Monday's follow-up.

The Jays had scratched across two runs before the fatal fifth, and although Ichiro's error was damaging, by his own admission Hughes could have stopped the bleeding right there. Instead, he turned it into a hemorrhage, allowing a hard-hit RBI double to Adam Lind on his very next pitch. After intentionally walking Brett Lawrie to set up a double play, Hughes then surrendered a sacrifice fly to Moises Sierra, completing the scoring and his night's work.

For the fourth time in his past six outings, Hughes failed to last five innings. And for his ninth straight outing, he failed to get a win. His last victory came on July 2. He is 0-6 with a 5.47 ERA since.

Afterward, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who often falls back on Hughes' 18-8 season in 2010 as his reason for continuing to believe in him, now could offer only this lukewarm vote of confidence: "Right now, he's in our rotation. We haven’t talked about taking him out of our rotation."

When a questioner asked to Girardi to explain what might go into such a decision, the manager cut him dead with a single word: "Thought."

But asked if Huff -- who pitched the final 3 1/3 innings of hitless ball, striking out five -- had done enough to merit consideration for a start down the stretch, Girardi said, "He’s pitched really well. Obviously, you’re thinking all the time."

It's time for Girardi, or whoever makes these kinds of decisions, to start thinking about making that change.

There's nothing personal in it. Hughes is one of the best guys to deal with in a generally very good clubhouse to work.

But the time to expect him to turn his season around has come and gone. His record is now 4-13, his ERA 4.91. His season is beyond salvaging.

Not so for his team. Even with the loss, the Yankees are a do-able 4½ games out of the second wild-card spot, and there are still 14 games left against bad teams, teams such as the Chicago White Sox, the San Francisco Giants, the Houston Astros and, yes, the Toronto Blue Jays that they can and should beat.

They stand a much better chance of doing that if they stop handing the ball to Phil Hughes every five days, unless it's when he's on his way in from the bullpen.