Commentary

Hughes' spot still in jeopardy

Despite an improved outing, the No. 5 spot in the rotation isn't secured just yet

Updated: May 2, 2012, 2:08 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The bar can't be this low for Phil Hughes, can it? It is at a point where progress is defined by an ERA that drops from 7.88 to 7.48 in a loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

"I thought there was progress," manager Joe Girardi said after the New York Yankees' 7-1 loss to the Orioles. "I really did."

On Tuesday, Hughes lasted until two outs in the sixth, the furthest he has gone all season. He gave up a couple more home runs that led to three runs. His final line was 5 2/3 innings, four runs (all earned) on four hits. He struck out six and walked one.

"It is a lot better than early in the year," Hughes said.

Still, with Andy Pettitte probably a little more than a week away and rookie David Phelps making his starting debut on Thursday in Kansas City, Hughes did not do much to firm up his grip on the No. 5 spot.

If Phelps is lights-out against the Royals, the rookie is not going earn another start? If Phelps pitches well, then Hughes might be taking his reborn "reliever mentality" to the bullpen or perhaps -- but probably not -- as far as Triple-A.

Hughes -- with really just a two-pitch arsenal (fastball and curve) -- is probably best suited to throw gas out of the bullpen. In a rotation, he will never graduate to being more than No. 4 or 5 unless he can develop a reliable, much-talked-about change-up to keep hitters with some doubt in their mind. In 21 1/3 innings as starter so far, batters have now pummeled Hughes for seven home runs.

Entering Wednesday, Hughes left nothing to the imagination for the Orioles. In the days leading up to the start, Hughes spoke openly about recapturing his reliever mentality that allowed him to make such an impact as the bridge to Mariano Rivera in 2009. He packed that attitude along with him when he made his way into the rotation in 2010. It worked so well that he had a month-and-a-half run that made him an All-Star that year.

Since then, starting in the second half of '10, Hughes has been a question mark. From last year's dislocated fastball to this season's murky results, it made sense for Hughes to try to turn back the clock on Tuesday.

"I'm basically trying to get back to that reliever mentality," Hughes said beforehand. "It is more of an aggressive mindset and not trying to reserve anything. It was the sort of mindset I had at the beginning of 2010 when I was coming out of the bullpen, off that bullpen season."

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Al Bello/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes still has a long way to go to return to his 2010 form.

Vowing to have that 2010 "reliever mentality," Hughes aggressively fired 17 fastballs out of his 21 first-inning pitches. Even hiking when his heater to 95, it is hard to have so little finesse when facing big league pitchers. If they know what is coming, you better have Rivera's cutter.

Buck Showalter's picked up on this pattern. Heck, you didn't have to be smart baseball guy like Showalter to notice. Anyone with access to the game could see that Hughes was all-in on his strategy to win or lose with his fastball and a few curves.

The Orioles were just sitting back and waiting on the heat. To end the first, Adam Jones just missed going deep on a 95 mph fastball. Curtis Granderson ended the inning with his No. 14 against the wall.

In the second, Chris Davis smashed a 93 mph fastball into the seats to tie the game at one. In the third, J.J. Hardy broke that tie by mashing a two-run homer on a 91 mph fastball. The man on base, Roberto Andino, the No. 9 batter, led off the inning with a killer walk.

In the sixth, Girardi yanked Hughes after he hit Matt Wieters. There were two outs and Boone Logan entered to face the lefty Davis. Davis scorched a single and the Orioles went on to score three more runs, one of which blemished Hughes' mark further.

If you want to make excuses for Hughes, you could say this last run wasn't Hughes' fault. But Girardi had to pull him, because you can't let a No. 5-type starter, with 100 pitches under his belt, get beat late.

"We thought Hughes was getting near the end of his rope," Girardi said.

Girardi correctly chose to build Hughes' confidence rather than watch Davis flatten it with another ferocious cut.

Hughes said he threw a few changes on the night, but there weren't enough to make the Orioles really have to think about it. All Hughes and the Yankees have talked about every spring is how Hughes needs a third pitch to go deep into games. Phelps already has control of four. Hughes hasn't mastered three.

"I don't think he has necessarily completely abandoned it," Girardi said of the change-up. "He does need to use it, for sure."

Maybe Tuesday night becomes a turning point for Hughes. It is possible he builds on his "progress." But with Pettitte lurking and Phelps with an opportunity, Hughes' spot in the rotation is still very much in jeopardy.

The bar might be rising a little higher to be the Yankees' No. 5 starter.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

EDITORS' PICKS

  • Sweep Free
    The Yankees beat the Rays, their first win of the three-game series, in Tampa.
  • Where Are The Players?
    What's stopping NFL players from taking up the fight against abuse in their ranks?
  • Heavy Is The Captaincy
    Being a team captain has been a heavier burden than Victor Cruz expected.
  • A Positive 'Tone
    Was Santonio Holmes a divisive figure in the Jets' locker room? Rex says no.
  • Eyes On The Rise
    Who has the most to prove at Knicks and Nets training camps?