Hughes relaxed and ready for Game 3

NEW YORK -- Phil Hughes grew up 3,000 miles from Yankee Stadium, which might be the perfect distance to handle the postseason in the Bronx.

Hughes may not pitch well in his first career playoff start Saturday night as he tries to close out the Twins, but it won't be because he is overcome by the circumstances.

"It's that California thing," Yankees ace and fellow, mellow Californian CC Sabathia said.

Hughes, 25, has always been a relaxed kind of guy, but since Sabathia arrived he has learned how to translate it to game days, especially big games.

It was evident when he was thrust into his final panic start against the Red Sox to basically guarantee the Yankees a playoff spot. It was apparent every day of his 18-win season.

"I try to take a page out of CC's book," Hughes said. "I try to be more relaxed, more laid-back and try not to be different than any other day. I feel like it has helped. I just try to go out there and do what I was prepared to do."

In Hughes' first playoff appearance in 2007 against the Indians, he threw 5 2/3 of one-run ball in relief. Last year, he struggled, capped by giving up three earned runs in 1 2/3 innings in the World Series.

Sabathia also initially had his playoff difficulties but now it is fully understood that it was just a small sample size, not indicative of something missing from Sabathia's pitching DNA.

As it turns out, Sabathia is the Yankees' pitching prototype. He minimizes the hot lights of October, not trying to do too much. It is an approach both innate and learned. Sabathia sees it in Hughes.

"You definitely notice how poised he is, he doesn't seem to be rattled by anything," Sabathia said.

Before Sabathia's presence, Hughes tried to do the "game-face" thing -- because that is what he thought he was supposed to do -- but it didn't feel natural and Hughes says he was "all wound up." Plus, it really wasn't what he was taught as a kid.

Hughes grew up 10 minutes from Angels Stadium in Anaheim. From the time he played Pony ball, his father preached to him not to allow his emotions to become too high or low. This approach fit Hughes' personality like a Snuggie.

"He is really laid-back," Phil Sr. said.

When Hughes has struggled, it is when he doesn't attack as much. Former Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser thinks Hughes neutralized that issue when he entered the pen last season.

"Phil Hughes grew as a pitcher when he went from a laid-back guy who really didn't have aggressiveness in the strike zone, who really didn't see an urgency to going after the hitters," said Hershiser, now an ESPN analyst. "They moved him to the bullpen and developed that adrenaline that, 'I'm only going to be out here one inning and I'm going to let it all hang out.' I think he found he had a gear that he didn't know existed almost."

While Hughes shot out of the gates this season to return home as an All-Star, Hershiser thought Hughes' midseason struggles could have been related to the Yankees' innings' restrictions, which may have stripped Hughes of some of his newfound aggressiveness.

"I think this playoff structure and the adrenaline will remind him of his reliever days and remind him of the importance of every pitch and not worrying about saving stuff, but actually coming in and getting every out he could and not worrying about endurance," Hershiser said. "The playoffs could be a good balance for him."

It all is set up for Hughes' first postseason start. He still might not pitch well, but it won't be because of nerves.

"Phil has ice in his veins," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "He's kind of California cool and nothing ever seems to bother him."

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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