DETROIT -- You never want to make too big of a deal about one start.
But if you wanted to, this one would certainly be worthy.
Phil Hughes is back. Or at least, he appears to be. And if it is truly the case, the New York Yankees should be thrilled to have him really back into the fold, someone to count on in the starting rotation.
A healthy, dominating Hughes gives the Bronx Bombers a real chance to advance in the postseason, not just make it there. That's how much strong starting pitching is worth in the playoffs.
Hughes didn't just beat the Detroit Tigers, 5-1, in a complete-game, suitable-for-framing victory before a sellout crowd at Comerica Park on Sunday afternoon. He dominated a dangerous lineup, featuring Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, two of the biggest boppers in the American League. Better yet, Hughes beat Justin Verlander, the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young.
"His stuff was probably as good as we've seen it all year," said manager Joe Girardi of Hughes, who earned his first complete game of his career. "And that's encouraging.
"It should give him a lot of confidence."
On this day, Hughes, now 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA, was the clear-cut star on the mound. He allowed just one run on three hits. The right-hander struck out eight and walked three. His lone blemish was a solo home run by Fielder, off a curveball in the fourth inning.
"Phil deserves all the credit,'' said captain Derek Jeter, who led off the game with a home run. "He was pretty impressive today."
This was the old Hughes, more like the 18-game winner Hughes from 2010. He was aggressive, came after hitters.
He threw strikes, mostly used his fastball and worked ahead in the count. It was textbook, what Hughes has to do to win consistently.
It was a great bounce back start for Hughes, who was spotted a 3-0 lead in his previous start against the Angels in Anaheim, only to get a no-decision. In 5 1/3 innings, Hughes gave up seven runs (all earned) on 11 hits. "Especially coming off a bad outing, it's a good feeling and something to build off," Hughes said.
This time in Motown, Hughes said, he made a couple of mechanical adjustments around the third or fourth inning. "I was trying to stay closed and not leak open too much, which caused my ball to run back in in Anaheim a lot," he said. "My fastball was staying more true and had good life on it. It just felt a lot better overall."
That was really obvious. Hughes owned people, including Cabrera, who hit two tape-measured shots in the Tigers' victory on Saturday night, but was 0-for-3 and fanned twice on Sunday. Cabrera entered the game batting .500 vs. Hughes (7-for-14 with three homers). "He was throwing his fastball by people," Jeter added.
The Yankees have been very careful with Hughes this season after the injury. It has been all about pitch counts and not going too deep into games. "I did know that I hadn't pitched a complete game," said Hughes, who was 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA in 17 appearances (14 starts) in 2011. "I thought I better get this done."
After a two-out single by Delmon Young in the bottom of the ninth, Girardi paid a visit to the mound. The message was simple: finish it. Girardi told Hughes that Brennan Boesch was his last batter no matter what. Hughes fanned him, ending the day with 123 pitches, 82 for strikes. "I knew I couldn't mess around," Hughes said. "It was nice to be able to get him. It's nice to have the trust in your manager.'"
Hughes, 25, has done so much in his successful, young career. Still, it was good hurdle for Hughes to clear, a nine-inning victory. "To know that you can do that," Girardi said. "That's a pretty good hitting club."
Some will wonder if this be the relaunching point for Hughes, whose career was derailed last season with inflammation in his right shoulder and a stint on the disabled list, missing 84 games. The next time he takes the mound, many will watch closely to see if he has the same confidence, attacks that lineup the way he did against the Tigers when he turned it into good.
"I don't know if his confidence was wavering," Jeter said. "You'd have to ask him. But he threw well. … Anytime you have a performance like this, it's going to help.''
Both for the Yankees now, during the regular season, but especially come October.