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Saturday, April 13, 2013
Hughes falling shy of the hype

By Kieran Darcy


On a mid-April Saturday afternoon, New York’s two baseball teams sent two first-round draft picks to the mound.

One almost made history. The other was booed off the field.

While the Mets’ Matt Harvey was working on a near no-hitter in Minnesota, the Yankees’ Phil Hughes was getting hammered in the Bronx. Hughes lasted just two batters into the fourth inning, giving up five runs in a 5-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

“He didn’t really have a good command of his fastball,” said manager Joe Girardi. “He made some mistakes with his fastball today, and they hit ‘em.”

Boy, did they ever. Nate McLouth lined Hughes’ second pitch of the game down the left-field line for a double, and came around to score. Ryan Flaherty launched a long fly ball into the right-field seats in the second inning, making it 2-0.

Hughes almost gave up two more homers in the second as well. J.J. Hardy’s drive to dead center died at the warning track, and Manny Machado’s blast hit off the top of the right-field wall.

But then Nick Markakis took Hughes deep in the third, and Nolan Reimold led off the fourth with another long ball. After McLouth followed that up with another double, Girardi sent Hughes to the showers.

“I have to be better,” Hughes said. “I have to locate my fastball, and be able to throw my offspeed pitches for strikes, and I wasn’t able to do either today.”

To his credit, Hughes made no excuses after the game. He missed time this spring with a back injury, and was pitching on irregular rest because of the team’s two rainouts in Cleveland this week, yet didn’t pin his poor performance on either issue.

But he didn’t have an explanation, either. “I wish I did,” Hughes said. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t let it happen.”

Hughes wasn’t good in his first start of the season either. Last Saturday in Detroit, he surrendered four runs on eight hits over four innings. He’s now 0-2, with a garish 10.29 earned run average.

The Yankees’ starting rotation, supposedly the strength of the team, suddenly doesn’t look so strong. Ivan Nova lasted just 4 2/3 innings in his one and only outing thus far, and Andy Pettitte had his next start pushed back due to back spasms.

CC Sabathia has looked very good. But truth be told, the best pitcher in New York right now is Harvey, the 24-year-old phenom who lost his no-no in the seventh inning, but still improved to 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA for the crosstown Mets.

Once upon a time, the same kind of greatness was expected of Hughes, who is just two years older. Although Hughes was drafted out of high school and has been in the big leagues since 2007, he hasn’t lived up to the hype.

Yes, he pitched 6 1/3 no-hit innings in his second big-league start, in Texas -- but then he had to leave the game with a hamstring injury. Yes, he won 18 games in 2010, and 16 in 2012. But his career record is 52-38 with a 4.44 ERA.

It’s fair to say more was expected of the 23rd overall pick in 2004.

This could be Hughes’ final year in pinstripes -- he will be a free agent at the end of this season. On the bright side, he has plenty of time to turn this year around, and Girardi said he’s not thinking of making any changes to his rotation.

“I think it’s real early to do that,” Girardi said. “Phil had a pretty good year for us. He’s had a couple pretty good years as a starter for us.”

Hughes was 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA in four starts last April, and recovered to finish 16-13 with a 4.23 ERA. “I went through it last year,” Hughes said, “so at least I know I can turn the page and figure it out.”

If he doesn’t, he’ll hear more boos in the Bronx.

“I’m used to it. Unfortunately,” Hughes said, of the boos. “I’ve kind of learned to deal with it.”

That’s not what Hughes, or the Yankees, were expecting nine years ago.