Saturday, April 12, 2008 Updated: April 13, 3:51 PM ET
At only 21, Hughes already has the makings of an ace
By Peter Pascarelli ESPN
BOSTON -- Some local poets would have you believe that Ted Williams hummed "Sweet Caroline" whenever he trotted out to left field.
However, back before Fenway became a boutique ballpark, it was different, and so were both the Red Sox and Yankees. Boston historically played the part of the Washington Generals to the Globetrotters from New York. The Red Sox never had enough pitching, while the Yankees would develop prospects in order to trade them for established players.
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Times have obviously changed. Boston has won two World Series in the past four years by building around home-scouted and home-developed pitching, while the Yankees are depending on their own young prospects to close the gap with the Red Sox.
This sea of change in the organizations is underscored by tonight's ESPN "Sunday Night" game in Boston, where the Yankees' 21-year old super prospect, Phil Hughes -- part of a wave of highly regarded young arms percolating in the New York organization -- is scheduled to oppose Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has come to symbolize the latest Red Sox conceit -- namely, that this self-hyped Red Sox Nation phenomenon now spans continents and oceans.
But scrape away the bluster, and the scheduled pitching matchup is fascinating.
In Hughes, the Yankees have someone they believe is destined to be an ace-caliber pitching star. Only Arizona's Justin Upton is younger (by two months) than Hughes in the major leagues this season. But Hughes' ability is far beyond his years.
And in his brief major league tenure, Hughes has already earned the respect of his veteran Yankees teammates. "He's going to be an ace down the road when he gets comfortable and pitches more at this level," said Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon.
"But he's got all the ability and the poise to be a really good one right now. We think he can win 15 games or more for us this season. And he'll just keep getting better."
Hughes will be making his first career start at Fenway Park. "Any player who comes up with the Yankees knows that the games against Boston are something a little special," Hughes said Saturday.
"And we all know that succeeding against the Red Sox is a big part of being a Yankee. So I'm very excited about the opportunity."
What makes Hughes such an enticing prospect is not just his considerable physical ability, but his feel for pitching, which is so advanced for someone so inexperienced.
"When he's putting his fastball in the spots he wants, he can handle any lineup," said first-year Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland, who has overseen Hughes throughout his meteoric rise through the New York farm system. "He has a very good curve ball -- a legit out pitch -- and both his change and slider have kept improving.
"He also has a poise and presence that you don't see in many young players. He can be as good as anyone."
Hughes was off his game in his last start, taking a loss on a cold, damp night in Kansas City last Tuesday. He seemed to allow a few close pitches not called his way to rattle him, and his command started wavering -- a scenario the Yankees hope will be a learning experience. An early key to his success against Boston will be getting ahead of hitters and having the majority of pitches on the edges of the strike zone called his way.
As for Matsuzaka, he will be coming off two excellent starts following a no-decision in the Red Sox's season-opening loss to Oakland in what was a circus atmosphere in Tokyo. Some people like to suggest that Matsuzaka somehow did not live up to what were hysterical expectations last year when Boston outbid the rest of baseball to import Matsuzaka from Japan.
However, given the enormous adjustments he had to make both culturally and baseball-wise, Matsuzaka had an outstanding season with his 15 wins and 201 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings, numbers that any team in baseball would love to have in its rotation.
Matsuzaka is clearly much more relaxed in his second season with Boston. He has gone through a winter of conditioning that should make him more comfortable pitching every fifth day, something he had never done prior to the 2007 season.
He has also worked all spring on throwing more strikes early in the count. He tends to run deep counts and walk a lot of batters; high pitch counts have often forced him out in the middle innings.
In his early starts this year, Matsuzaka is still walking too many batters -- nine in 18 1/3 innings -- but he has otherwise become tougher to hit. Matsuzaka enters his fourth start with 22 strikeouts and only eight hits allowed for a .131 opponents' batting average.
So on the "Sunday Night" stage, it is a pitching matchup of quality and potentially dominating performances, waged by two pitchers who symbolize how these two historical rivals have evolved over the decades.
Peter Pascarelli is the lead researcher for "Sunday Night Baseball." He will preview each Sunday night game all season long. He is also co-host of the Baseball Today podcast, which runs Monday through Friday on ESPN.com.