By 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.