Exactly two years ago, Phil Hughes had a 3.11 ERA. He was three days away from his 10th win, a few weeks away from his first all-star game and two years away from ever showing that sort of consistency again.
Today, Hughes is back, still far from a perfect but consistently pitching deep into games and winning them. Tonight Hughes faced a Nationals team that had won six straight — swept the Blue Jays and Red Sox — and through most of the game he pitched with no more than a one-run lead. He delivered six innings strong innings, giving up one run and striking out nine.
“I feel like I’m close,” Hughes said. “Every time I go out, I want to get a little bit better. We’re not going to be perfect every time. That first part of 2010, I was pitching really well. I’d like to get back to that. It’s a good step. It’s a growing process, a learning process, trying to tweak some things and get better every time. I’ll continue to do that, not necessarily thinking about, ‘I want to pitch like this month two years ago,’ but trying to help the team now and pitch as well as I can.”
There’s a renewed confidence to Hughes. After spending years talking about offspeed pitches, Hughes is leaning heavily on the four-seam fastball that’s always been his best pitch.
“I feel better with everything, my stuff, (and) aggressiveness has played a key role in that,” he said. “I’m just attacking hitters. When I fall behind, coming with my fastball instead of tyrying to pitch around guys or get tentative.”
It’s interesting that Andy Pettitte was hurt through most of Hughes’ rocky second half of 2010, was retired through all of his injury-plagued 2011 and pitching in the minor leagues when Hughes got off to a slow start this season. Maybe it’s conicidence, or maybe Pettitte is a positive influence.
“I’ve known Phil since the first time he came up here, so I’ve been able to see him progress as a pitcher, and get better and better,” Pettitte said. “… The decision-making, being able to relax out there in certain situations, confidence after you have a couple starts that carry on into the next start. All those things factored together is why he’s getting on a good roll right now. Mechanically, I think he found something a few starts ago where he might be hiding the ball better. I think it might be a combination of a lot of stuff.”
Hughes said the mechanical adjustment is a small one he made during his complete game in Detroit, but he was pitching well long before that. In his past eight starts, though, Hughes is 6-1 with a 3.27 ERA. In early May he seemed to be pitching his way out of the rotation. Now he seems to be pitching his way back to 2010.
“It’s as good as we’ve seen him,” Joe Girardi said. “… We felt this was a guy that could win a lot of games for us, and that’s what he’s doing.”
• Tonight was Girardi’s 500th win as a manager. In the clubhouse, Derek Jeter presented Girardi with a game ball and addressed the team, congratulating Girardi on the milestone. “It’s a big deal,” Jeter said. “Like I said, 500 is like 750 in New York. He’s done a great job since he’s been with us, and he should be extremely proud of that.”
• Girardi on No. 500: “Obviously I can’t do this without the coaches and the players and the front office that gives me an opportunity to do this. We’ve got a group of guys in there a group of guys in there that play hard and do their thing. They’re the guys who win the games.”
• Another milestone for Alex Rodriguez, who tied Jimmie Foxx for sixth place on baseball’s all-time home runs list.
• Rodriguez drove in his run with a single in the third inning, and for a while it seemed the Yankees would finally win a game without hitting a homer. That went out the window when Curtis Granderson hit his 20th of the season in the ninth inning. “I didn’t know,” Granderson said. “I think Boone made a comment, Tex made a comment, said I was selfish. I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to!'”
• Although he allowed a run on two hits, Dave Robertson said he didn’t feel rusty tonight. “Not really,” he said. “I felt really good. I gave up a couple of hits. It’s going to happen. In the end, I felt like I made a lot of good pitches, so I’m very happy with the outing. … . I felt like my location was pretty good on most of my pitches.”
• Most honest quote of the night: “Very excited to be back here pitching in the big leagues,” Robertson said. “It’s a little better than Batavia.”
• Easily the Yankees biggest outs of the game came on the bases-loaded double play that let them get out of the third inning with the Nationals scoring only once run. “They got the bases loaded and I made a horrible pitch,” Hughes said. “Hung a curveball on 0-2. I got out of it on the next pitch, which was great, to be able to give up just the one run in that situation.”
• Hughes said Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez gave him a hard time after Hughes grounded out in the third inning. “On the 2-0 (pitch), I kind of took a big swing,” Hughes said. “He was just like, ‘Come on, man. Take a strike.’ I tried to get a fastball I could hit, and I hit it foul.”
• Hughes explaining his mechanical adjustment: “After the third inning in Detroit, I made a little mechanical adjustment trying to close my body off a little more, help hide the ball and create more of an angle to home plate. It’s not an overdramatic twist or anything like that, just a little turn that allows me to hide the ball better and create a better angle to home plate.”
• Seems right that Hughes gets the final word: “It’s big,” Hughes said. “I want to keep the streak going as long as we can. Guys are pitching well and you don’t want to be the one that lets it down. I’ll continue to try and get better between every start. Hopefully this keeps up.”
Associated Press photos