Commentary

Phil feels the heat -- then throws it

Under pressure from Ivan Nova, Hughes comes up huge in rain-shortened shutout

Updated: August 3, 2011, 12:44 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CHICAGO -- It took just six innings for Phil Hughes-less to change back into Philth Hughes.

Well, six innings, plus five months, seven puzzling starts and the presence in the New York Yankees clubhouse of one eager and talented 24-year-old named Ivan Nova looking forward to re-stake his claim to a starting job on Thursday night.

It's nights like these that tempt us to believe that there's something to the Billy Martin Managerial Turbulence Principle, the guiding tenet of which is that players respond better to the stick than to the carrot.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes became Phil Huge again for the Yanks on Tuesday.

But Hughes, who was credited with a complete game and his first career shutout after the skies above U.S. Cellular Field opened up just before the bottom of the seventh, washing out the rest of a 6-0 Yankees victory over the Chicago White Sox, believes it was all a happy coincidence that on the day he most needed to be the pitcher he was last year, he not only came up big, he came up huge. Phil Huge.

"It didn't even really come into my mind, everything that was going on," Hughes said. "It was more of a personal thing for me. I wanted to pitch well. I knew I could do better than what I had been showing, and that was basically it. I wanted to satisfy myself before anybody else."

He wound up satisfying everyone. Showing the life that seemed to have drained out of his fastball over the second half of last season and never returned this spring, Hughes threw nothing but heaters in the first inning, setting the White Sox down on 10 pitches.

Most encouraging of all, his dislocated heater magically returned, clocking in at 95 mph on the last pitch of the inning a four-seamer that Carlos Quentin could do nothing but stare at.

"When I looked up and saw that 95, I thought, 'All right, I can work with this,"' Hughes said. "Once I felt that confidence I took that aggressive mindset and ran with it."

Over his six innings of work, Hughes scattered just three singles, walked no one, allowed no runner to reach second base. "If I could have wished for a way for this outing to go, this would have been it,' Hughes said. "This felt similar to my game last year in Oakland."

On that night, April 21, 2010, Hughes took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and struck out 10 batters using a blazing, late-moving fastball. From that day on, although A.J. Burnett may have had the official designation, Hughes was the real No. 2 starter on the staff.

By the All-Star break, Hughes was 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA. But red flags began to go up in the second half of the season. His second-half record dipped to 7-6, his ERA soared to 4.90. He gave up more homers, struck out fewer batters, and often no longer seemed to have a swing-and-miss pitch. The Yankees tried limiting his innings, skipped his turn in the rotation a couple of times, and Hughes responded with a better September.

But when his velocity mysteriously disappeared in spring training, necessitating a nearly three-month stint on the DL, the doubts about Hughes' future were palpable in the Yankees' clubhouse, even if they remained unspoken by the manager.

Still, Nova, who despite his 8-4 record was sent down to Triple-A Scranton to make room for Hughes on the roster when he returned on July 5, was back in the clubhouse, preparing to start and Thursday and primed to assume Hughes' role in the rotation if Hughes continued to falter.

"I'm not going to say [Hughes] is pitching for his spot," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said last week. "But we need him to pitch well."

And the manager kept referring back to Hughes' 18 wins last season, conveniently editing out that nearly two-thirds of them came more than a year ago.

So there certainly was a lot at stake for Hughes on Tuesday night, which is probably why when, just before the start of the bottom of the seventh the rains finally came -- the start of the game was delayed by 45 minutes in anticipation of a storm that never developed -- Hughes was the only player in either uniform out on the field as the grounds crew was unrolling the tarp.

"I tried to just stay out there," Hughes said. "My pitch count was low [65] and I wanted to go further. I talked to [home plate umpire] Ted Barrett hoping to change his mind, but that's just the way it goes. I was just hoping they wouldn't run me over with the tarp."

After a second, 57-minute delay, the umpires called the game. By then, Hughes had made his point, to the White Sox, to Girardi and to himself, and had gotten all the help he would need when Robinson Cano doubled in Derek Jeter in the first inning. The next inning, Mark Teixeira would hit the first of his two homers, one from each side of the plate, and the Yankees would get away with a quick and easy 6-0 victory.

With Boston beating Cleveland, the Yankees remained a game behind the Red Sox in the AL East race two days before the beginning of an important three-game series this weekend at Fenway.

But the most important development of the night was the return of Philthy Phil Hughes, a pitcher the Yankees had to fear they had seen the last of. "We hadn't seen that yet this year," Girardi said, as if he had fully expected to. "That's why were not in too much of a hurry to judge."

And on the subject of Hughes' future in the rotation, the manager remained circumspect. "There's no rush to make a decision," Girardi said. "Maybe we stay with a six-man rotation for a while. Maybe not. We don't have to make a decision now."

Or maybe ever. As Teixeira said, "Phil was awesome. This is the best we've seen him all year. His fastball had some late life."

So, maybe, does his 2011 season.

NOTES: It was the 12th time in Teixeira's career he hit a home run from each side of the plate in the same game, a major league record. (He had been tied with Eddie Murray and Chili Davis.) They also gave him a team-high 31 homers, his eighth-straight season of 30-plus home runs. Plus, Teixeira's average, which had dipped to .239, is up to .256. ... It's been nearly 40 years since the last time the Yankees had a rain-shortened shutout. That one came on July 20, 1973, at the expense of, yes, the White Sox, a 7-0 six inning win for Sudden Sam McDowell. ... Derek Jeter had a single and a double to claim sole possession of 24th place on the all-time hits list with 3,022, passing Rafael Palmeiro. Next on the list is Lou Brock with 3,023. ... Russell Martin hit his first home run since June 29, a span of 81 at-bats, in the second. ... A.J. Burnett (8-9, 4.23) faces RHP Gavin Floyd (9-9, 3.96) on Wednesday, first pitch at 8:10 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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