Phil Hughes had thrown two complete games in his career. The first came in 2005, a seven-inning game with Low-A Charleston. The second came in 2011, a six-inning, rain-shortened game in Chicago. Until this afternoon, he’d never been on a mound with two outs in the ninth inning, given one last chance to finish what he started.
“I just told him, this is your last hitter,” Joe Girardi said. “This is it. This is as far as I’m pushing you. Empty it out.”
Strike three was a 93 mph fastball, Hughes’ 123rd pitch of the game.
“Some innings, you get a couple of guys on and you labor and you go deep into the count, and that can ultimately prevent you from going deeper into the game later on,” Hughes said. “Thankfully when I got a guy on, I got a double play there in the middle innings, and I was able to put out any little fires that sort of started. Ultimately I was able to keep my pitch count down. The quick outs help — first-pitch outs and ground balls and stuff like that — and it all kind of accumulates to being able to go out there and do kind of like what CC does.”
It’s a fair comparison. Today Hughes pitched like a legitimate ace. As a matter of fact, he pitched better than Justin Verlander. One month ago, Hughes was 1-4 with a 7.48 ERA and it was reasonable to wonder whether he was on the verge of losing his spot in the rotation. He’s since gone 4-1 with a 3.60, and the ERA would be much lower if not for that brutal outing in his previous start in Anaheim.
In some ways, it’s that bad start against the Angels that puts this gem in proper context: There have been plenty of reasons to give up on Hughes this season, but the Yankees have stuck with him, and he’s spent the past month rewarding their patience.
“It’s all about making adjustments,” he said. “I could have let that outing in Anaheim snowball into a few rough outings in a row, but to be able to have a good one like this after a rough one, when I had put together three or four decent outings, to not let things continue to slide down hill, it’s a good feeling. It’s one start, and I have to build on this one.”
By the way, the picture at the top is Hughes’ reaction after the final out. For him, that’s a massive show of emotion on the mound. He knew he’d just finished off a good one.
• After joking this morning that the Yankees would never score again, Derek Jeter opened this game with a home run off Verlander. It seemed to set the tone. “We knew coming in that we weren’t going to go out there and score 15 runs,” Jeter said. “But we were able to get those runs early. Phil deserves all the credit. He was pretty impressive.”
• Hughes said he made a mid-game adjustment to maintain his fastball command, making sure he was “staying closed and driving my shoulder toward the plate.” It was effective because Hughes leaned heavily on his fastball, while mixing in a handful of changeups and throwing some good, tight curveballs. “It just seemed like he got good fastball command and he had a better curveball today than he did his last start,” Russell Martin said. “With just those two pitches combined he’s got enough to get through any lineup. … Really, his fastball command was what made him so effective today.”
• Hughes on the home run pitch to Prince Fielder: “First pitch hanging curveball. Even with a good mechanical adjustment, it wouldn’t have matter on that one. It was just a poor location. I put it on a tee for him. Nothing really I could have done with that one.”
• Girardi said he was more or less committed to giving Hughes a chance to finish it. The only thing that would have changed his mind would have been a lengthy top of the ninth. Otherwise, there was no real thought of pulling Hughes even after the base hit in the bottom of the ninth. Hughes was going to go until there were two on.
• Hughes was pitching with an extra day of rest, and he’s going to get another extra day before his next start. That helped ease Girardi’s mind about going over 120 pitches.
• After last night’s ejection, Girardi took the lineup card to home plate himself. Mick Kelleher usually does it. “I just wanted to make sure that there was nothing carried over,” Girardi said. “There wasn’t. It was all good. Normal conversation.”
• One downside to Hughes’ start: He’s now allowed a homer in all 11 starts this season.
• Jeter’s home run was the 27th leadoff home run of his career and his third of the season. The run scored was the 1,799th of Jeter’s career, tying him with Ted Williams for 17th on baseball’s all-time hits list.
• The Yankees have scored in the first inning in each of their last five games against Verlander and six of their last seven including the postseason. “It’s not like he’s fun to face,” Jeter said. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s going to mix it up. It seems like he gets stronger as the game goes on, so you’d like to score runs early every time you face him. Not too many people have had much success. We were fortunate today he was struggling with his command a little bit.”
• When a fan ran onto the field before the final out, it took an eternity for stadium security to even go after him, much less stop him. He ran all the way up to Nick Swisher and asked for a fist bump. Swisher gave him one. “I was like, well hell, he’s going to jail. Why not?” Swisher said.
Associated Press photos