Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Monday, April 25, 2011
Updated: April 4, 3:06 PM ET
Hughes shut down, Yankees shut out

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Yankees suffered two losses Monday night, one on the field and one in their already thin starting rotation.

They will no doubt get over the former, a 2-0 defeat by the Chicago White Sox, propelled by a dominant performance by their starter, Phil Humber, who carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

But there is no way to tell how well they will weather the other loss, the loss of Phil Hughes for an indeterminate length of time to a problem that as yet has no solution.

Hughes has been on the disabled list for 10 days now, suffering from what the Yankees were calling, alternately, a dead arm or right shoulder inflammation.

Phil Hughes
An injured Phil Hughes watched from the dugout as the Yankees bats fell silent against the White Sox on Monday night.

Neither was considered serious and both were assumed to be eminently curable the old-fashioned way, by means of rest.

But the rest didn't help -- in fact, Hughes' problem seems to have worsened in his 10 days of relative inactivity -- and his next stop is an MRI tube, sometime Tuesday afternoon.

Who is to say where that leads? To the operating table? To a long and painful rehabilitation and an uncertain future? Or to just another couple of weeks off, at which point Hughes will return, perhaps miraculously, to the form he showed over the first half of last season?

In any event, the Yankees' darkest fears about their rotation before the season seem to have been realized barely a month into it, but with a bizarre wrinkle:

A.J. Burnett, the one they expected would be their problem child, looks right now like one they don't have to worry about. And Hughes, the one they assumed would have another terrific season, has replaced him as their biggest question mark.

"No rotation ever wants to lose a starter," Joe Girardi said. "Starters are something that are at a premium. You got a guy who won 17 games as a starter last year, 18 total, that's not easy to replace. Fortunately we've had some guys who have thrown the ball well, Freddy [Garcia] and Bartolo [Colon], and they're going to have to step up for us. It's not something that you want but you have to deal with it."

The questions about Hughes are many and troubling. The most obvious one, of course, is what ever happened to his fastball, the one that regularly touched 94 mph before the 2010 All-Star break but has struggled to break 91 ever since.

But another one is almost as obvious and every bit as troubling: How could an organization as thorough and thoroughly funded as the Yankees -- and so cautious that it sends Alex Rodriguez for an MRI, it seems, every time his nose runs -- not have done the same for Hughes as soon as his problem became obvious two weeks ago?

The official answer is that as long as a player is not complaining of pain, the Yankees don't see the need for an MRI. Hughes has not complained of any acute pain, although he has referred several times to numbness in his right arm, a feeling he likened Monday afternoon to "being punched really hard in the thigh so that you can't feel it for a while."

He also said his arm now felt after 10 pitches in a side session the way it normally feels after 100 or 110 pitches in a game. "Just a lot of deadness," is the way he put it.

But somehow, the Yankees have been ignoring or minimizing those red flags, which no doubt began to be raised in the second half of last season, when Hughes' ERA and home runs allowed began to soar at the same time his velocity, strikeout ratio and swings-and-misses began to dwindle.

Is it possible they simply did not want to know the truth?

Doubtful, because the Yankees have never been an organization to shy away from making tough personnel decisions if they felt their chances to win were compromised.

No, what this looks like is an example of applying a best-case scenario to the worst area of this team, namely the starting pitching.

Coming in, the Yankees knew they had a horse in CC Sabathia and may have suspected they had a dog in Burnett. They loved Ivan Nova's stuff and poise but still harbored some doubts about his ability to pitch deep into a game. (Those doubts, incidentally, still exist.) And they were willing to swallow hard and go with either Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon as the No. 5 starter, hardly a vital part of the roster.

And after Sabathia, the one guy they figured they did not have to worry about was Hughes. After all, at 24, he was still growing, his body still getting stronger, his arm and talents still developing. The innings limit they imposed on him last season, they believed, saved him from unnecessary wear-and-tear and would serve him well this season, when the handcuffs would be off and he would be cut loose to throw as many innings as they needed him to.

For whatever reason, they chose to ignore the warning signs that all was not well, probably because they had no other choice.

Now, Hughes is out for an unknown period of time, and both Garcia and Colon are in. Luckily for the Yankees, both have pitched exceptionally well, but their ages -- Garcia is 34, Colon soon to be 38 -- and injury histories make them a monumental crapshoot as well.

It was never supposed to come down to this, not in the master plan drawn up in the offseason by GM Brian Cashman, the one that was to include Cliff Lee as 1A to Sabathia's No. 1, and perhaps Andy Pettitte as an outstanding No. 3.

Instead, the Yankees were forced to hope for a Burnett bounceback, which so far they have gotten, and a Hughes continuance, which right now seems like a remote possibility at best.

Baseball history is littered with stories of young pitchers who "inexplicably" lost their fastballs and never got them back; it happened to the Yankees just a couple of years ago with Chien-Ming Wang.

Perhaps they saw history repeating itself with Hughes and chose not to acknowledge it. Perhaps they just couldn't bear the thought.

Now, the reality is out in the open for everyone to see. Phil Hughes is not going to pitch for the Yankees in the foreseeable future, and no matter what the MRI shows on Tuesday, no one involved with baseball's richest and most thorough and careful franchise has any idea of how to get him right again.

That was the grim truth the Yankees had to face on Monday afternoon, a truth that rendered the mere loss of a baseball game Monday night relatively trivial.

NOTES: Alex Rodriguez busted up Humber's no-hitter with one out in the seventh, singling over second base with Mark Teixeira (walk) on first, giving the Yankees their only real threat of the night. But Humber blew Robinson Cano away and got Nick Swisher to ground out to end the inning, and his night. ... The Yankees got two other hits, a pinch single by Eric Chavez in the eighth and a leadoff single by Curtis Granderson in the ninth, but could do nothing with them. ... The White Sox, who had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, broke a 23-inning scoreless streak in the fourth when Granderson, trying for a diving catch on Carlos Quentin's sinking liner, saw the ball scoot past him for a double. Two ground outs later, Quentin scored to provide Humber (2-2) with all the runs he would need. "Early in the game I'm willing to take the risk," Granderson said. "You figure you'll have more opportunities to score. But as the innings went on, all I could think of was, 'A.J., I'm gonna get that one back for you.' Unfortunately, I was never able to." ... The White sox got an important insurance run when Rafael Soriano allowed Alexi Ramirez's pop fly to drop just behind the mound leading off the ninth. That runner came around to score on a single by Paul Konerko. ... Mariano Rivera, who threw 33 pitches Sunday, was not available. ... Cano saw his 13-game hitting streak end. ... Burnett went eight innings for the first time since May 30, when he beat Cleveland to run his record to 6-2. He then lost all five of his starts in June on the way to finishing 2010 at 10-15. ... Nova (1-2, 7.63) goes Tuesday night against RHP Gavin Floyd (2-1, 4.00). First pitch 7:05 p.m. ET