The mechanical difference in Phil Hughes’ curveball is very small. He used to spike his index finger, which forced him to “choke” the ball in order to grip it. By choking the ball, Hughes was able to generate movement but not velocity. Without velocity, Hughes had to release the pitch noticeably higher than his fastball in order to get it over the plate.
Essentially, all he’s done is remove the spike. That lets him hold the ball more loosely, which lets him throw it harder, which makes his breaking ball delivery more similar to his other pitches.
“I thought I made some improvements with it and gave guys less time to react, and that’s what you’re aiming for,” Hughes said. “You want to fool them, but at the same time you don’t want them to be able to readjust for a slower breaking ball. It wasn’t as big, but I felt like I fooled a couple more guys than I normally would with my other one, so that was a good thing as well.”
Take today’s second Blue Jays at-bat for example. Eric Thames went down looking at an 0-2 curveball. Hughes speculated that, in the past, Thames might have recognized the curveball in time to foul it off, letting the at-bat continue and forcing Hughes to find another way to get him out.
“My old one could be anywhere from 72 (mph) to 75-76 if I really threw it hard,” Hughes said. “This one I saw some 78s and mainly 75-76, which is mainly where I want it to be. I look more at the swings and not necessarily velocity, and just make sure there wasn’t a hump in it… I felt like I could throw it for a strike, too. Maybe a little bit easier just because I don’t have to really factor in as much break because it’s shorter and harder. I felt like I could probably throw it for a strike a little easier. When in doubt, I went to it, and it was pretty good for the most part.”
One knock on Hughes last season was his inability to put hitters away. He’d get ahead in the count, but an at-bat would continue. Best-case scenario was an increased pitch count. Worst-case was a hitter staying in the fight long enough to scratch out a hit. Hughes didn’t have the same problem today, and although his first five outs came on the curveball, his last three strikeouts came on the fastball.
Hughes said that, even with slightly diminished velocity later in the game, his fastball became better because of location, and because the Blue Jays had to respect the offspeed stuff.
“It just shows you he’s getting closer to what he was,” Joe Girardi said. “I don’t think you can quantify it, but I thought he took a big step today. That’s what we wanted to see from him. Next time, he’ll be on normal rest and his normal routine, so I hope that helps him as well.”
• Hughes tried to plead his case to pitch the seventh, but the Yankees thought the heat at Rogers Centre had been too taxing and didn’t want Hughes back out there. It felt boiling in this building, with no breeze and the sun baking the turf. Hughes said he would have sworn it was over 100 degrees.
• Hughes didn’t thrown any changeups, but he had a reason for staying away from the pitch today. “The couple of lefties that are in their lineup, our reports are that they stay on changeups pretty well, Snider and Lind,” he said. “Obviously if my changeup were my second pitch I’d go to it, but as a fourth option, I just felt like there was a couple of other pitches that I could go to for that.”
• Sweeny Murti brought up an interesting point. Would it make sense for Hughes to keep his old curveball as a slower alternative? “Not necessarily,” Hughes said, “because I can always slow the other one down if I need to, kind of roll it in for a strike. As long as I stay feeling comfortable with this one, I don’t really see the need for both because they both kind of do the same thing.” Oh well. I thought it was an interesting idea.
• This was really the first time Russell Martin caught Hughes when he was pitching well. “There’s some life behind the ball,” Martin said. “I don’t know what the radar gun was saying, but it was jumping out of his hand today. From what I’ve seen in the past, that’s what he’s used to doing. Elevating the ball when he has two strikes, doing different things. Just knowing he can throw it by guys has to feel good for him.”
• Speaking of Martin, he said the Yankees have a “system in place” to deal with potentially stolen signs, and he now considers it a non-issue. “We’re not going to worry about it anymore,” he said. Apparently fans were giving him a hard time all night about stolen signs.
• Brett Gardner had his third three-hit game of the series. He also stole two bases, and the Yankees only scored in innings when Gardner got on base. “After taking three or four days off, you worry about your timing and things like that,” Gardner said. “For me, the first game back after the break, I saw the ball well and managed to square up a couple balls. Things are going well so far for me.”
• Gardner’s big series has come with him hitting all over the lineup, including leading off today. “It’s all the same to me,” he said. “My job is to get on base no matter where I hit in the lineup. The last couple days, I’ve been able to do that and make a few things happen.”
• Two very nice plays by Ramiro Pena to help get out of the fifth. “The bunt play was good,” Hughes said. “And then I joked with him he was just trying to protect his face with the other one. That happens. I’m not very good on those balls back to the mound, so I have a lot of respect for guys when they can make those plays.”
• The Yankees run in the first inning snapped a stretch of 11 straight games without a first-inning run. That was their longest stretch since 13 straight games in 2006 (that’s according to Elias, of course).
• Nice work by the Yankees bullpen. Cory Wade, Dave Robertson and Boone Logan combined for three hitless innings. They walked none and struck out five. Logan struck out the side in the ninth.
• Jorge Posada played in his 1,790th game as a Yankee, passing Bill Dickey for sole possession of eight place on the franchise’s all-time games played list.
Associated Press photos