Commentary

Hughes doesn't look suited to start

In Monday's loss to the Angels in Anaheim, the answer was an emphatic no

Updated: May 29, 2012, 4:54 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ANAHEIM -- You look at Phil Hughes' recent lines -- two earned runs last time out against the Royals; two earned runs two starts back against the Blue Jays; one earned run in nearly eight innings against the Mariners; three earned runs in nearly seven innings three weeks ago in Kansas City -- and you think the perennial question of where he really belongs on the Yankees pitching staff has been settled once and for all.

And then you look at the first inning he pitched Monday night against the Angels and the question comes back again, in boldface type: Is Phil Hughes really suited to being a starting pitcher?

On this night, the answer comes back in capital letters with an exclamation point at the end.

NO!

The truth is, Hughes could run off three or four decent starts in a row after this one, in which he gave back the advantage Jered Weaver's lower back gave him 12 pitches into the game, and the 3-0 lead his teammates staked him to in the first inning, and make you start to doubt that judgment all over again.

But even if you best-case scenario Hughes' performance, in which he allowed seven earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, and, most alarmingly of all, his pitches seemed almost pathologically incapable of avoiding a bat, the most favorable judgment you can come up with is that this immensely talented 25-year-old right-hander is maddeningly inconsistent.

If you choose the worst-case scenario, it is that he simply does not have good enough stuff to get major-league hitters out over an extended period of time.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and the harshest truth of all is that right now, the Yankees have no choice but to keep sending him out there every five days, because if it's not Hughes, it's David Phelps or -- gulp! -- Freddy Garcia.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonPerhaps Phil Hughes is better suited for the bullpen, where he can rely more on his fastball.

But you could tell by talking to Hughes, and his manager, Joe Girardi, and his catcher, Russell Martin, that no one is quite sure what to make of what happened Monday night at Angel Stadium in a rollicking game before a raucous sellout crowd that seesawed for 3 1/2 hours and ended abruptly when Mark Trumbo belted a walk-off home run off Cory Wade to give the Angels a 9-8 victory.

"He couldn't get his fastball to stay on the first-base side," Girardi said. "If he would try to go away from righties, it would come back across. If he tried to go in to lefties it would come back across. And he really didn't have much command of it."

So why didn't he try something else, like the changeup that before the game Girardi had said he was "going to have to throw" if he was to have any success as a starter?

"That's a good question, why," Martin said. "It's just something that we really haven't done, especially against righties."

The answer may be as simple as this: That the pitcher throwing it and the catcher calling for it don't have that much confidence in it. Or any at all. At least, neither of them seem to have as much faith in that pitch as Girardi does.

"You know that," Hughes said of the need to throw his off-speed stuff more, "But when you're out there in the moment, it's tough to kind of slow yourself down. There were probably a few opportunities when I could have in that first inning, but instead, I was trying to squeeze the leather off the ball and throw a fastball. That's not a good way to go." In fact, Hughes threw 28 pitches in that first inning. Twenty of them were fastballs, seven curveballs, one a changeup. He got precisely one swinging strike, on a curveball, and the changeup was smoked into center for a two-run single by Howie Kendrick. There were a dozen foul balls. And no strikeouts.

"That's always an issue," Hughes said. "Foul balls happen, but if I'm executing pitches, making better pitches and using my off-speed stuff I think I get some quicker outs there and don't labor as much."

But that lack of swing-and-miss stuff has cost Hughes time and again. He finished with three strikeouts, including catching Albert Pujols looking at a curveball -- a call Pujols vehemently disagreed with -- and he did settle down somewhat from the second through fifth innings as he began to mix in more of his secondary pitches.

But rookie left fielder Mike Trout, who had a big day that included a spectacular running catch on Eric Chavez's gapper in the third, belted a flat cutter over the left-field fence in the fourth to continue Hughes' streak of having allowed at least one home run in every game he has started; he has now allowed 12 in 10 starts.

As a result, a game in which the Weaver went out after 12 pitches and the Yankees battled back twice to erase deficits, ended in disappointment with Trumbo's game-ending home run.

"A lot of my pitches were over the middle of the plate tonight," he said. "I think it was just a little too much adrenaline, excitement, trying to overthrow and leaving balls over the middle of the strike zone."

It could have been that, with Hughes having grown up nearby and a lot of friends and family, including his parents, at the ballpark. Or it could be something even more fundamental than the pressure of wanting to perform well in your hometown.

It could be that Hughes' repertoire translates better out of the 'pen, where he can be free to cut loose with his fastball in small doses and not have to worry about conserving arm strength and establishing his secondary pitches.

Girardi said he thinks the problems Hughes faced tonight are "definitely fixable," and maybe he is right. Chances are that a month from now, Hughes will have strung together a few more decent starts and we will all be ready to place the nagging question aside once again.

But on this night, against this team, and with this outcome, the question was back, and louder than ever.

And so, it seemed, was the answer.

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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