Phil Hughes comes full circle in Texas

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A 20-year-old Phil Hughes had the baseball world in his hands. It was 2007 and his second career start. Texas Ranger after Texas Ranger came to the plate. Each returned to the home dugout without a hit.

It went on and on until the seventh. To start the inning, the Rangers' Michael Young lifted a fly ball to center.

It was another out, but pop!

Hughes' hamstring gave out. The no-hitter was gone. Two days later, Hughes was gone to the DL. It was two years before his career finally got back on track.

Now, on Saturday, Hughes pitches in the latest biggest game of his career.

"It is funny how life comes full circle," said Hughes' agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Sports.

On that same Rangers Ballpark mound, Hughes is being asked to minimize the Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett effects on the American League Championship Series. After the Yankees came back to win Game 1 6-5 over the Rangers, Hughes is not trying to save Yankees' season. Instead, he is looking to take control of the ALCS before it returns to the Bronx.

Hughes enters the start knowing two important aspects. He can handle the postseason, and he has had success at Rangers Ballpark. In the first postseason start of his career, Hughes threw spectacularly against Minnesota, with seven scoreless innings in the Yankees' AL Division Series-clinching Game 3 win.

Hughes won both of his career starts in Texas, although neither occurred this season. He did pitch a scoreless inning of relief this year. He has not allowed a run in 15 1/3 innings here and has allowed only three hits.

"I feel pretty comfortable here," Hughes said.

The May 2007 start when his hamstring popped? Suddenly, the highlight of his life was a lowlight.

"That was certainly disappointing," Hughes said. "Family and friends know not to bring it up, just because it's not one of my best memories."

Hughes' career looked as if it were about to take off; instead, he was grounded until last season, when he was demoted to the bullpen and then excelled as the eighth-inning setup man before he flourished as an All-Star starter this year.

That May night, Balelo watched from his Los Angeles office. He has a close player-agent relationship with Hughes, so as the no-hitter extended, his office grew quieter and quieter, everyone knowing what the night might mean. It looked as if a star was born. Then there was the pitch to Young and the reaction.

"He gave that little hop," Balelo said. "We all knew something happened. We were hoping it was dehydration."

It wasn't. It was a hamstring, and with the pop, the air went out of what looked like sudden stardom. In 2008, he was 0-4 in only eight starts, hurt and totally lost.

"The early part of my career, I wish I could forget," Hughes said.

In 2009, he was lifted from the rotation, was put in the bullpen and became the bridge to Mariano Rivera. In 2010, three years after the no-hitter ended in a pop, he became an All-Star and the Yankees' No. 2 starter in the ALCS.

"Last year as a reliever was definitely a learning experience for me," Hughes said. "This year, finally getting in a full season as a starter, it's nice now. When I look back at my first couple of years, that obviously didn't go as well as I would have liked."

On Saturday, Hughes will have the eyes of the baseball world staring at him. It is a full-circle moment for him.

On the mound, where his career skyrocketed before -- pop! -- it fell to earth, Hughes will try to lift the Yankees closer to the World Series.

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

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