Commentary

Hughes hits stride as Yanks hit stretch

Unlike 2010, healthy righty's at his Phil-thiest just when Bombers need him most

Updated: August 20, 2011, 3:55 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two Sundays ago at Fenway Park, Phil Hughes probably pitched himself out of the Yankees' bullpen.

That night, in what might have been an audition for his new role, Hughes faced four batters, allowed two hits and a walk, and lost a game the Yankees really wanted to win against the Boston Red Sox.

But no matter, because Friday night at Target Field, Hughes just might have pitched himself back into the Yankees' starting rotation, for good.

Hughes allowed a solo home run to Trevor Plouffe (the second hitter he faced in the first inning of the game), a single to Luke Hughes (no relation) in the eighth and nothing in between.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes has posted a 2.10 ERA and opposing batters are hitting just .198 against him in his past four starts.

And behind him, the Yankees rolled to an 8-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins, a win that might mean less in the race for the American League East -- the Red Sox also won, keeping the Yankees in first place, half a game ahead -- than it might for the Yankees' chances in the postseason.

Because at this time last year, Hughes already had won 15 games, but his innings load was approaching 150 and the Yankees were beginning to skip him in the rotation with concerns about his durability and fitness for October.

This year, Hughes is just a .500 pitcher -- the win Friday night evened his record at 4-4 -- but because of his three-month stint on the DL, he has thrown only 51 1/3 innings and the only talk of pulling him from the rotation involved performance, not durability.

Now, that talk might have ceased. Showing impeccable timing, Hughes appears to be peaking just as Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and, yes, even CC Sabathia seem to be winding down.

"Overall, I feel pretty good," Hughes said after a tidy, 106-pitch performance in which he only once worked with two runners on base, after a pair of seventh-inning walks. "I'm kind of at a spot right now where I was at the beginning of last season. I don't have the innings on my arm that I normally would. It's a good thing, I guess."

We've all heard those "blessing in disguise" canards applied to just about every negative situation in sports, but in Hughes' case, the mysterious disappearing fastball and his subsequent disappearance from the Yankees' roster from April 15 to July 5 might turn out to have been just that.

With the exception of that horrendous one-third of an inning in Boston, Hughes has looked and pitched like a different pitcher since returning to the club six weeks ago.

And in his past four starts, he has been nothing short of remarkable, allowing just six earned runs in 25 2/3 innings for an ERA of 2.10, holding opposing hitters to a puny .198 batting average.

"He's pitched really well, and it seems like he's getting stronger as we go along," Joe Girardi said. "The one thing is, we know he's probably not tired. These other guys, they've thrown a substantial amount of innings for them. But Hughes, he's fresh."

In theory, Hughes' resurgence gives Girardi the manager's proverbial "good problem to have," that of too many effective pitchers for too few slots.

But in reality, Hughes is one of just three truly reliable starting pitchers the manager can count on now -- Ivan Nova and Sabathia, assuming his 5.21 ERA over his past four starts is just a temporary roadblock, are the other two -- a prospect that seemed unthinkable in April, when he was having trouble breaking the speed limit with his fastball.

On Friday night, Hughes topped out at 93 mph and consistently stayed in the 91-plus range, more than sufficient when you mix in an effective changeup and cutter and occasional, less-effective curveball, as Hughes did.

"When you've got weapons like that," Girardi had said before the game, "there's no sense in keeping them in your back pocket."

Hughes brought them all out Friday night and, with the exception of the fastball he left over the plate for Plouffe, got little resistance from the admittedly toothless Twins lineup. If there is a complaint, it would be that Hughes got only two swinging strikes all night -- one of his two strikeouts was looking -- a problem that will need some tweaking the next time he goes up against the Red Sox or any of the other better-hitting teams in the league.

And go up against them he will, because right now, after Sabathia, there is no better pitcher in the Yankees' rotation than Hughes. Colon seems to be running out of steam, Nova still shows occasional inconsistencies, Garcia is on the DL and A.J. Burnett is, well, A.J. Burnett.

And if Game 2 of the playoffs was scheduled to be played tomorrow, who would be a better choice to start it?

"He's definitely making it difficult for us," Girardi said when the question of Hughes' spot in the rotation and beyond was put to him after the game. "We're just going to let this play out. We have a long ways to go before we get to the playoffs. The good thing is, I don't have to make a decision yet. I have weeks to sleep on it."

No doubt, Girardi will sleep better after what he saw from Phil Hughes on Friday night.

NOTES: The punch in the Yankees' lineup on this night came from Russell Martin, who blasted two home runs -- a solo shot in the third and a two-run home run in the sixth -- and just missed a third when an eighth-inning drive hooked foul. Martin, who batted .295 in April but spiraled downward thereafter, suffered through a homer-less July but now has four in August. He also has twice the number of home runs at Target Field (two) than the Twins' Joe Mauer has in two seasons (one). "I've been feeling better and seeing the ball better," said Martin, who suffered some back problems in May. "Right now, I've got zero problems, and when you're feeling great, you expect to do well, and hopefully I can just stay feeling good like this the rest of the way. With all the rest Joe's been giving me, I feel like it's April right now." ... Mark Teixeira's two-run double in the ninth not only blew the game open for the Yankees, but it gave Teixeira 1,000 RBIs for his career. Teixeira did not know he was that close to the milestone and so did not ask for the baseball, but he did remember, in detail, his first career RBI as a Texas Rangers rookie in 2003: "I was batting left-handed. I had just gotten my first hit the at-bat before, and I rolled over a ball in the hole, which now would be an out [because of the shift teams customarily play against Teixeira nowadays]. As funny and as sad at the same time as it is, I would have been out and I wouldn't have gotten that RBI. It was just kind of a normal ground ball just through the hole." Teixeira, who has 33 home runs, says he values RBIs more than any other stat. "It's a nice number," he said. "You get that many in only nine years, you think, 'I must be doing all right.'" ... Curtis Granderson's fifth-inning RBI double kept him atop the AL with 96 ribbies. Teixeira is second with 94. ... Derek Jeter had two infield singles to nudge his average up to .292. He also executed a fine slide to beat a throw home and score the Yankees' third run on Teixeira's sacrifice fly to medium left in the fifth. ... Robinson Cano's RBI double in the fifth extended his hitting streak to 11 games. ... LHP Aaron Laffey, claimed off waivers from the Mariners, is expected to join the team and be in uniform for Saturday night's game. ... Burnett (9-9, 4.61 ERA) faces LHP Francisco Liriano (8-9, 5.12), first pitch an hour earlier, at 7:10 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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