The trend for Phil Hughes over the course of his past few starts has been encouraging in many respects. The much-maligned right-hander looked like he might be in line for a demotion early in the season, but he’s turned things around in his most recent outings.
“Each one has gotten a little bit better,” manager Joe Girardi said of Hughes, who will start today against the Mariners. “You’d like to springboard that into him getting us into the eighth inning and that sort of thing. I thought he pitched well in Kansas City. He was aggressive, and he used his curveball and changeup effectively. (Seattle) has a number of left-handed hitters, so I think he’s going to have to do that again today.”
After 5 1/3 innings on May 1 against the Orioles in which Hughes allowed four runs on four hits and struck out six, he had his longest outing of the season in his last start against the Royals on Sunday. Hughes went 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on six hits while striking out seven. His ERA is still bloated at 6.67 and he has allowed at least one homer in each of his six starts so far this season (which I believe is inevitable for him as a fly-ball pitcher in this ballpark), but there’s no denying the improvement we’ve seen in the last two weeks. To me, his curveball has been the key. When he first came up, that was his out-pitch, but he’s gotten away from it at times. The changeup is good to keep hitters off balance, but it doesn’t generate as many swings-and-misses as the hook.
Girardi made it official in his pregame press conference that David Phelps will be moved back to the bullpen with the return of Andy Pettitte. That means that Hughes is locked into this five-man rotation with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Pettitte for the foreseeable future.
“I think there’s more in there, as well,” Girardi said. “I think he can continue to get better, and I thought he located his fastball down more last time. I thought it didn’t have as much run back as it’s had – we call it leaking back over the plate. As that becomes more consistent, his outs will come quicker and he’ll go deeper into games.”
• Derek Jeter will get a half-day off today, with Jayson Nix filling in at shortstop. In his major-league career, Nix has played a total of 17 games at SS, but not since 2010 with the White Sox (Girardi said he played there last year, but not according to baseball-reference.com). With Eduardo Nunez being sent down to play everyday at Triple-A, Nix will have to fill the role of backup infielder. “He’s played there,” Girardi said. “We played him there in spring training, and we played him there last year. I have to pick my spots to rest Derek. This is a guy who’s played in every game.”
• Girardi has been very proactive when it comes to giving A-Rod and Jeter half-days off so far this season. As he pointed out, with Raul Ibanez playing more in the field due to Brett Gardner’s injury, the DH spot has opened up. He’s received production from both of his aging stars, and hopes to keep them fresh for the full season. “I have to pick my spots,” he said. “What I worry about is when they are fatigued, they’re going to pull something. I’ve been more proactive with Alex than I have with Derek in a sense.”
• Girardi continued to rave about last night’s hero, Raul Ibanez. I’ve said before that he looked slow and over-the-hill during spring training, but he’s been a major run-producer from the No. 7 spot in the order. He has at least one hit in each of his last five games, including three homers. He really seems to be enjoying the short porch in RF. He has 19 RBI coming into today’s game — good for third on the team behind Nick Swisher (24) and Curtis Granderson (20) — which led me to pick him up for my fantasy team. “It’s been incredible,” Girardi said. “It’s one thing to have 20 or so RBI, but it’s another thing to have the type that he has – how big they’ve been for us. A lot of them have been game-changers for us… He has been huge in the clutch.”
• Not only did Ibanez produce last night, but so did the heart of the Yankees’ lineup. Robinson Cano has been scorching-hot on his nine-game hitting streak (including going 12 for his last 20 to raise his average to .308) and A-Rod is up to .297 with a .399 OBP. Even Mark Teixeira picked up two hits last night, which as the YES Network’s Jack Curry pointed out, made it the first time all season that the Yankees’ 3-4-5 hitters each had multiple hits in a game. “You saw the difference how we scored off of a really tough pitcher because of what they did in the lineup, and that’s extremely important,” Girardi said. “I think they’re starting to feel more comfortable. Sometimes, it takes 100 at-bats for guys to get in their groove and start to feel comfortable.”
• Girardi was asked about whether or not he’d consider using new closer David Robertson for multiple innings at any point this season. “I have not used Robby very often in multiple innings,” he said. “Maybe four outs, or maybe finish an inning to get to the next. It’s not something we want to do a lot with Robby.”
• While the return of Jesus Montero has garnered most of the attention with the Mariners in town, former Yankee Hector Noesi will get the start for Seattle today. The right-hander was effective as a long man for the Yanks last season, but has been up-and-down for the Mariners. He’s 2-3 with a 6.30 ERA in six starts, but had a very nice outing in his last start. Noesi pitched seven innings of four-hit ball against the lowly Twins on Sunday, allowing just one run while striking out five. The Yankees are obviously very familiar with him, which could provide an advantage today.
• Here’s today’s lineup for Seattle: 1. Ackley 2B; 2. Jaso C; 3. Suzuki RF; 4. Montero DH; 5. Seager 3B; 6. Carp LF; 7. Smoak 1B; 8. Saunders CF; 9. Kawaski SS.
• Of course, about half of Girardi’s press conference was devoted to discussing Pettitte’s return tomorrow. As I tweeted earlier, Pettitte’s locker was being set up, but I don’t know if he’s here because no one has seen him yet. Girardi said he expects Pettitte to be good to throw around 100 pitches. “You have to show some patience,” he said. “Tomorrow I worry a little about the emotions. Obviously, there is going to be a huge buzz around here. When you sit out for a year and a half, sometimes I think you truly realize how much you miss the game and how exciting it is to come back. I know for me as I got older, it seemed to be a little more exciting each year that I came back.”
Associated Press photos