Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Hughes Lift

Phil Hughes gave the Yankees exactly what they needed, and in the process announced his intentions to remain in the majors.

Hughes allowed two hits and two walks in six shutout innings, and the Yankees' bats awoke from their deep slumber in the seventh inning of an 11-0 victory over the Tigers in Detroit Tuesday, breaking a four-game losing streak.

It had been exactly a week since the Yankees received a quality start and in that time, they won only one game. Hughes, 22, was in a tough, pressure-filled spot. Last season he struggled with ineffectiveness and injuries, and he failed to win a game in the majors. He went to work in the offseason and was impressive throughout training camp.

His maturity showed when despite starting the season in the minors, he continued to pitch at a high level, earning this start in place of Chien-Ming Wang.

It looks like something has clicked with Hughes. He battled hitters, making tough pitches and escaping a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the fourth. That was his only real trouble of the game. He effectively mixed a two-seam fastball that touched 94 mph with a big curve, while spotting an effective slider and changeup. He threw 58 of 99 pitches for strikes and I expect that efficiency to improve as he settles into the rotation.

This was the kind of pitcher the Yankees were expecting to see when they gave Hughes a spot in the rotation last season. Of course, it is not unusual for a starter to struggle in his first season in the majors. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery all had terrible first seasons before they became the backbone of the Braves' dominant teams of the mid-1990s. More recently the Mets' Mike Pelfrey was awful in his rookie season in 2007 before bouncing back with a strong 2008. The hope is Hughes will follow that path of development.

But let's not get overly excited. It's only one game and he has to show he can pitch like this consistently. Still Hughes gave Yankee fans a reason for hope at a bleak point early in the season. And that just might be what the Yankees needed most.

The Good
The offense finally showed some life. And it started with two at-bats by Robinson Cano against Tigers starter Edwin Jackson in the fourth and sixth innings.

The toughest part of the Yankees' slump was that the offense lacked life. It had stopped battling and grinding out pitches. It was getting poor at-bats in run producing spots and the hitters' approach became anxious as they appeared to be pressing. And when the Yankees would fall behind, there seemed to be little hope of a comeback.

Sometimes all it takes to change all that is a quality at-bat, and Cano gave them two. In the fourth Cano battle Jackson through 11 pitches before hitting a single on the 12th. In the sixth with a runner on third and two outs, Cano struck out in a 10 pitch at-bat.

While efforts did not directly lead to any runs, you could see some life come into the Yankees' dugout at the at-bats wore on. It seemed the attitude was changing and then they exploded in the seventh with a 10-run outburst, highlighted by a sacrifice fly (and an error), four singles with a runner in scoring position and a grand slam by Jose Molina, of all people. Nick Swisher scored three runs and homered in the ninth.

The big test now will be for the offense to carry that production to Wednesday's game.

The bullpen even produced a positive, closing out the last three innings without giving up a run. Yes, the game was out of reach, but for this unit, scoreless innings are important as it tries to rebuild its confidence. Mark Melancon also made his second appearance with a flawless seventh.

The Bad
There wasn't much as it all came together. It was a pitching duel and once the Yankees got Jackson out of the game after the sixth, they beat up on the Tigers pen.

What We Learned
Hughes looks like he's on a mission and ready to prove he belongs in the majors. The hope right now is that he makes it impossible for the Yankees to send him down once Wang gets back. That would be a tough decision and a great problem to have.

Hey Dave...
You'll like this. The geniuses who set the Yankees' ticket prices (ie Lonn Trost and Randy Levine) have decided to slash prices to fill those seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. Seats that were $2,500 will now be sold for $1,250. And those ... I'll be kind here and just say ... ticket holders who actually paid full price for those seats will receive an equal number of free tickets for the remaining regular-season games. Talk about being late to the dance. I guess seeing all those empty seat on YES was just too much for them to take.

Runners In Scoring Position
4-for-9 (.444)
46-for-197 (.234)

Up Next
Wednesday at Tigers, 7:05 p.m., YES
Chamberlain (0-0, 3.94 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (1-2, 4.50)

The pressure is on for the Yankees to back up Tuesday's victory with another after that four-game skid. But this start is particularly intriguing for Chamberlain. With each strong start by Hughes, there will be pressure on Joba to match that or exceed it. Otherwise the chants for him to be moved back to the bullpen will grow louder and stronger. Of course, if Joba responds positively, this kind of competition could really bolster the rotation. It will interesting to see how this all plays out.

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