BOSTON -- Phil Hughes does not belong in the bullpen any more than Mariano Rivera belongs in the rotation, not when A.J. Burnett is available for the human sacrifice required for the New York Yankees to get from six starters to five.
Burnett can go out Thursday night and throw the game of his life against the Boston Red Sox, pitch against them like he did in Toronto, and still Joe Girardi won't be able to trust him in October. The manager showed far too much faith in Burnett in last year's Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, and Bengie Molina sent that faith whistling over the left-field wall.
So $82.5 million investment or no $82.5 million investment, Burnett won't be given the chance to sentence another Yankees season to a bloody and premature death. Burnett is Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez and Carl Pavano, another high-priced gun lacking the requisite DNA to cut it in New York. In a few months, Brian Cashman will be eating a lot of Steinbrenner money to make him go poof in the night.
It makes no sense to protect a 34-year-old Burnett now at the expense of the 25-year-old Hughes later, and yet Girardi continued to agonize over that choice Wednesday night, appearing less comfortable with the subject matter than he was with the 9-5 loss to Boston.
"It's silly for me to make a decision now," the manager said. "I'll make a decision when I have to."
Girardi will make that decision after Burnett's last stand in Fenway, and if he wants to help his team in the short and long terms, he'll vote for Hughes and banish A.J. and his hangdog disposition to the 'pen.
"I can't really control what happens," Hughes said. "It's something in the past I haven't thought about, and I'm not going to start now."
Hughes was speaking after surrendering six runs and eight hits over 5 2/3 innings, a better showing than his dreadful performance against Oakland but a country mile from a convincing, Girardi-absolutely-has-to-pick-me-now start.
In describing his pitcher's work, the manager kept defaulting to terms such as "pretty decent" and "pretty good." As an endorsement, it was pretty lukewarm.
Hughes had one excuse he wasn't planning to use for public consumption, but his manager gave him up. Girardi revealed a moth flew into Hughes' eye on a fateful 3-2 pitch to Josh Reddick in the sixth, right after the Yankees scored four runs on Josh Beckett to take a 5-4 lead.
"There's thousands of them out there," Hughes said of the moths. "They were flying in the dugout."
No, it wasn't exactly the 2007 attack of Lake Erie midges on Joba Chamberlain, but this strange twist of fate might have altered Hughes' career path all the same. With one out and nobody on, Hughes felt the moth make contact with his right eye in the middle of his stride and gave Reddick a free pass to first base.
"They're strong up and down," Hughes said of the Red Sox. "They're kind of like us."
Only better, as in a lot.
Win, lose or draw in the rubber game, the Red Sox will end this series just as they opened it -- in first place. They've won 11 of 14 against these Yankees, and between now and their expected showdown in the ALCS, Girardi has to figure out how his pitchers can beat Boston four times in seven tries.
Before he cuts his postseason staff to three or four, Girardi has to cut his regular season staff to five. "The sixth guy is going to the bullpen," he assured.
Hughes has enjoyed some success in that bullpen, transforming himself into a mortal eighth-inning lock in 2009 before faltering in that role in October. Rivera promised to give Hughes a pep talk back then, but it wasn't necessary.
The Yankees won the whole thing anyway, and Hughes returned as a starter in 2010, winning 18 games and earning the right to believe he wouldn't be Joba'd back and forth between the rotation and the 'pen.
He was the first-round pick after all, a homegrown prodigy. But then his shoulder and velocity gave out, this while Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia were busy defying the forces of gravity and time. Suddenly there was Hughes in Fenway on Wednesday night, pitching one more time for his job.
He denied that any burden was weighing him down. In a quiet moment at his locker, Hughes was asked whether his positive experience in the bullpen in '09 might hurt his bid to stay where he wants to stay.
"It's tough to say," he said. "I don't have to make those decisions. ... I know [Cashman] has said that any starter can relieve, that it's pitching and it's not like you're doing something completely different. So I don't know if it's going to work against me."
Here's something that shouldn't work against Hughes: the $33 million guaranteed to his chief competition over the next two years. Burnett has no future in the Bronx and virtually no chance to earn a start in the coming postseason, surely the last of his Yankees career.
Hughes? He's the more reliable option right now, not to mention a kid with some upside to explore in 2012 and beyond.
Who knows where Girardi will turn? Before enduring this loss to Boston, the manager said this of the delicate balance between winning today and developing players for tomorrow: "Our job is to win, and to win now."
Burnett isn't going to help anyone win now, or later. He's not worth the chance of Phil Hughes becoming yet another Joba in yet another job.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."