Commentary

Hughes comes up huge at Fenway

If Phil keeps firing -- and Andy's dandy -- Yankees' rotation should be good to go

Updated: September 14, 2012, 1:10 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- It has been exactly 30 days since the last time the New York Yankees were able to do what they did Thursday night -- namely, win two games in a row.

That was also the last time they accomplished another of their milestones in the final game of their 10-game, three-city road trip, which is win a series.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesShould they make the playoffs, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte give the Yankees a solid 3-4 punch after CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.

And if those two milestones weren't enough for one night, there was also Derek Jeter, playing on what his manager described as "one-and-a-quarter ankles," blooping a seventh-inning single that not only provided his team with a crucial insurance run but also pulled him into a tie with Willie Mays for 10th on baseball's all-time hit list.

Oh, and there was one more thing. The Yankees took the field at Fenway Park knowing that their dogged pursuers, the Baltimore Orioles, had won again, meaning that if they failed to beat the Boston Red Sox, they would have found themselves in a position they had not been in for more than three months -- second place in the AL East.

And yet, the most potentially important development to come out of the Yankees' neat and tidy 2-0 victory over the Pseudo Sox lineup Bobby Valentine sent out was this: Phil Hughes pitched, if not his best game of the season, certainly his best game of the summer.

And if his form can hold up, the Yankees suddenly have the framework for a pretty good starting rotation for the postseason, provided, of course, they get that far.

Hughes took the game into the eighth inning, his longest outing since July 21, and shut down the Red Sox on just five hits. He was economical, throwing just 26 pitches to get through the first three innings, in which he was perfect. He was overpowering, all seven of his strikeouts came on fastballs ranging between 92 and 94 mph. And he was in command, not walking a batter for the second straight outing.

In short, he was everything the Yankees could have hoped for and everything they needed. And will need if their games continue beyond the first three days of October.

"That was a big win for us," Jeter said, "and a big performance by him."

And potentially, a huge plus for the Yankees, who announced earlier in the day that Andy Pettitte would make his first start since June 27 on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.

That means your playoff rotation -- again, if we get that far -- would be as follows: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte -- and Hughes, who has put considerable distance between himself and Ivan Nova, who also is returning to the rotation this weekend when the Rays come to town for another crucial series.

"It's important because of where we are and what we're fighting, trying to do," Girardi said of Hughes' performance, which ran his record to 15-12 and dropped his ERA to 3.96. "We need him to continue to pitch well down the stretch. He's been through this, he's pitched in the playoffs, he's been through this and he knows what he has to do."

For the Yankees, there still is no clear path to October; the Orioles keep on winning and, as Jeter was quick to point out, the Rays "always play us tough. They're a handful."

And even though many of the problems that have caused the Yankees to plummet in the standings persist -- once again, they were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, Jeter's RBI single being the one -- there's no arguing the fact that pitching wins playoff games.

And in theory anyway, adding a resurgent Hughes along with a returning Pettitte gives the Yankees a pretty strong 3-4 to go with their already steady 1-2.

Hughes, to his credit, refused to pound his chest over dominating a Red Sox lineup that was without Dustin Pedroia, whose wife had given birth to their second son earlier in the day, and with Cody Ross in the cleanup spot.

"That's not their 'A' lineup, it's not the lineup that they saw themselves having this time of year," he said. "But this is a tough park to play in and wacky things happen, so you can't take anything for granted. We just had to go out and win this game, and thankfully we were able to do that."

Now, the Yankees face another tough stretch, three against the Rays, who sit in third, four games back, three against the Toronto Blue Jays, and then three against the Oakland Athletics, who are embroiled in a pennant fight of their own.

"It was great to win this series, it really was, but we start all over tomorrow when we get home," said Jeter, who once again brushed off questions about his left ankle, which he rolled in Tampa last week and aggravated in the eighth inning of Wednesday's 5-4 win over Boston.

"I told you, I'm fine, everything's good," he said, but Jeter was clearly running gingerly on the injury and uncharacteristically walked back to the dugout after each of his first three at-bats, all of which he made outs.

On his fourth at-bat, he fisted a fastball from reliever Junichi Tazawa to score Steve Pearce from second to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. (They had scored their earlier run on a fourth-inning sacrifice fly with the bases loaded.)

"That was big," Hughes said of Jeter's hit, the only clutch hit by a Yankee all game and one of their few in the entire series. "Late in the game, two runs seems like a lot more than one."

And late in the season, a game like this can seem like a lot more than just a single victory. For the fifth time this season, the Orioles were in a position to push ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, and for the fifth time, the Yankees were able to keep pace.

"We have a resilient group. I've said it all along," Girardi said. "I hope it lasts."

It can't last without strong starting pitching, and right now, the Yankees seem to have it.

There's still no guarantee the Yankees will survive this final stretch run and make it to October, but if they do, it seems as though that could be one area of their game they won't have to worry about.

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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