Proving ground for Phil Hughes

hughes_370_042809.jpgBy Jon Lane
This is a photograph taken the night of May 1, 2007 in Arlington, Texas. The man below the scoreboard is Phil Hughes and the numbers above him do not tell the whole story. Here was Hughes, 24 days shy of the legal drinking age, on a Major League mound for the second time in his life and he was working the Rangers for a no-hitter along with 10 strikeouts entering the seventh inning. He was eight outs away when he threw an 0-2 curveball to – get this – Mark Teixeira. His 80th pitch would be his last. Hughes grabbed his left hamstring, and was forced from the game and immediately to the disabled list.

The performance was a tease. The injury was a distant early warning. Since 5/1/07, Hughes has won five games – none since September 27, 2007 – thanks to repeated ailments that has his career in stop-and-go traffic. Tonight, a 22-year-old right-hander, “The Sure Thing,” is being asked to halt a four-game losing streak and the latest round of panic attacks amongst the Yankees fan base.

One night after I wrote an open letter to CC Sabathia telling him it was time to play stopper, Hughes is starting the latest “Biggest Game of the Season.” There will be a lot more “big games” and “must wins” if the Yankees continue to stare down the barrel of a losing streak, along with calls for the heads of Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman. Yes, it’s April 28, 2009 and the Yankees have been through worse. This time, they are without Alex Rodriguez, Chien-Ming Wang, Xavier Nady and Brian Bruney, while Johnny Damon is fighting an aching left shoulder and Hideki Matsui brittle knees.

But a team that spent $423.5 million on people is a game under .500 and have watched the Red Sox run off 11 straight wins employing a brand of baseball they’re incapable of doing at the moment: killing with speed, locking down the seventh and eighth innings of tight games, and delivering in the clutch. The Yankees’ problems with runners in scoring position are like stubborn acne. Monday night they were 1-for-9. They have one hit in their last 25 at-bats in the pinch and are batting .223 in such situations.

Memo to Hughes: You’re 5-7, 5.15 in your career. You’re better than that. Tonight begins your chance to show that you can be an answer to Jon Lester. To Justin Masterson. To Manny Delcarmen. Homegrown prospects thriving in the big leagues. The Yankees have shown patience with you, refusing to make you the centerpiece in a deal for Johan Santana. Your legacy will not be written until years later, yet tonight is a big step. For your team. For your confidence.

One good start from Hughes will get the wheels turning towards better days, beginning with a rotation that will meet expectations once CC Sabathia (Monday’s hard-luck loser) and A.J. Burnett find their footing, and Chien-Ming Wang finds his way back. Hughes’ presence, combined with Joba Chamberlain’s underwhelming performances as a starter, has refueled the Joba-to-the-bullpen debate. I don’t remember exactly, but it was either Mike Francesa or one of his callers who theorized that the Yankees “neutered” Chamberlain by making him a starter, taking away the balls-to-the-wall mentality of letting it all go at 97 MPH that made him unhittable.

I will not go there. This topic is burnt to a crisp from where I sit and I’m amazed that it has such shelf life. Whether the Yankees actually cave in and put Chamberlain back in an eighth-inning role depends on a lot of variables, namely Bruney’s health and Mark Melancon’s effectiveness. The first and most important step commences with how No. 65 does tonight in Detroit.



    I too am waiting for heads to roll?. *cough* Girardi*cough*? he acts more like a teammate then a manager. The attitudes and demeanor are so strikingly opposite from when the team was managed by Torre. After a bad play they get a slap on the wrist (if that). I just feel like Girardi keeps saying ?Next time, next time?? not that the boys should be punished, but at least act like you?re trying to do something constructive.


    I feel as though Phil Hughes is the pitcher that we saw during that no-hitter in 2007. He has been derailed by injuries since then and unfortunately, his first start of 2009 is a pressure-packed situation in which he must play stopper. Having watched him and studied his numbers throughout his minor league and albeit short, major league career, I have no doubt he can pitch on the big stage. Fans of the Yankees need to be patient with him and give him the chance to blossom into the starter we all knew he could be when we didn’t trade him for Santana. On the chance that he doesn’t completely shut down Detroit tonight (which I believe is far more likely than a lights-out performance), we must be patient and allow for him to grow this year. His spring training (although spring numbers don’t really correlate to regular season games) was stellar and I still believe he could be an elite pitcher. All the pressure put on him in tonight’s start against Detroit is unfair. If Yankees fans (myself included) continue to put this much pressure on a young pitcher this early in a season then we are condemning him to fail. If however we accept that he won’t necessarily be a Cy Young candidate this year and just let him pitch the way we know he can, his stuff is right there among the elites in the game. Sportswriters need to stop penciling him in as a savior, just as they need to stop writing about Joba in the bullpen. Neither of these situations is likely to happen, and we should just accept what reality says. In any case, do not take the small sample size of tonight’s start as an indicator of future success of Phil Hughes. I, for one, will still be supporting him even if he is less than perfect. He is a staple of the future of the rotation for the Yankees and should not be cast aside on a whim by impatient fans. Lets go Yankees, and good luck to Phil Hughes! Hopefully the excessive fans can understand this and instead of criticizing, help him to grow. Yankees 2009!

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