Hard to come up with a better assessment of Phil Hughes’ outing than this one…
“I can’t remember the last time I was as bad as that,” Hughes said. “Just not being able to locate the fastball, or any offspeed pitch for that matter. Any time I did have to come in for a strike, it was out over the middle of the plate and just got hammered somewhere.”
Unless of course, a better assessment is this one…
“The fastball command wasn’t there,” Francisco Cervelli said. “We get behind all the time, and especially when you can’t throw strike one, that’s a problem. … When we miss location, this is the big leagues, you pay. Sometimes they hit a base hit, sometimes a homer. Today was three bombs.”
No sense debating what happened today. It was clear Hughes couldn’t locate his fastball, and when he tried to go to other pitches, those were knocked around too. He got nine outs, allowed nine hits, and gave up five runs with three home runs. It was ugly.
The question better question is, why, and it’s a question that leads to a lot of familiar questions about Hughes’ ability to stay healthy, stay consistent and stay in the ballpark.
Is Hughes physically ready to pitch?
His spring training as a weird one. He showed up pitching extremely well, then he had that back injury and things got off track. The Yankees rushed him away from a rehab start to make his season debut last Saturday, then they rushed him again — Hughes was supposed to pitch Tuesday after being rained out Thursday — to fill in for Andy Pettitte’s own back issues. So, seriously, is Hughes healthy enough and has he had enough tune ups to pitch in the big leagues?
“I felt like I was ready,” Hughes said. “I didn’t feel like my first start in Detroit was awful. The fifth inning got away from me, but I felt like I was locating my pitches pretty well and everything like that. Today was just kind of a complete 180. Obviously the results in Detroit weren’t great, but I felt like I threw the ball a lot better than I did today. … I guess the one good thing was my velocity was about what it always is. One hundred percent healthy. No ill effects from the back. It’s just a matter of executing pitches is what it comes down to.”
As for having a week between starts: “I always feel like I’m a little more fresh with extra rest. That has nothing to do with it.”
Why does Hughes do this in April?
For Hughes, expectations have been sky high ever since he was drafted in the first round and people started comparing him to Roger Clemens. He’s had some very real success in the big leagues — all-star game in 2010 stands out — but he’s also gone through some really low points. In his career, Hughes has a 7.03 ERA in the month of April (and that’s before this start). For the most part, the other months have historically been solid, but this season’s slow start is nothing new.
“I’ve gone through early struggles in the season before,” Hughes said. “I know I can turn the page and get through this early, bad start. It is what it is. I have to find a way. There’s no excuses. Just figure out a way to get outs and know that it’s going to turn eventually. … I wish I did (know why it happens). If I did I probably wouldn’t let it happen. At least I know I can turn the page.”
Can a fly ball pitcher keep the ball in the park?
Girardi said pregame that it’s a given Hughes is going to allow some home runs. He’s a natural fly ball pitcher who has always leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball. He works up in the zone a lot, and home runs are going to happen. The Yankees know that, and Hughes knows that. It’s part of what you’re getting into. But this was a three-homer game in which all of the long balls were solo shots. Imagine how bad it might have gotten if they weren’t.
“I never like to accept (giving up home runs),” Hughes said. “But I’m not a guy that works down in the zone, a sinkerball guy. I know I rely on a fastball that rides up in the zone sometimes, and I just have to make sure I locate it. When I don’t locate it, the ball goes in the air instead of on the ground based on the fact it’s stride and four-seam and rides a little bit. I’m always coming to the realization I’m always going to be a fly ball pitcher, I just have to be able to harness that. When I’m on, I get a lot of popups and fly balls, which is great, but when I’m not, the ball seems to leave the ballpark.”
• Alex Rodriguez showed up today. Girardi said pregame that he wasn’t expecting Rodriguez, but there he was, sitting in the dugout. “I haven’t seen him since last home stand,” Girardi said. “He said that he’s doing more and more each day. Although it was slow, he actually got on a treadmill the other day and he was pretty fired up about that.”
• Speaking of infielders, Girardi said there was no hesitation whatsoever about pinch hitting Brennan Boesch and using Robinson Cano at shortstop. Boesch was the go-ahead run, the tying run was on base, and Girardi had told Boesch at the beginning of the eighth inning that he would hit for Nix if that spot got to the plate.
• Cervelli actually took batting practice ground balls at second base with Cano just yesterday, and Cano routinely takes ground balls with Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez during spring training. Both Cervelli and Cano said they were fully aware that they might have to play unusual positions today. “I think we were going to do that in Detroit the other day when Nuney got hit,” Cano said. “We’re in the same situation now, but whatever it takes to help the team, I will do it.”
• Cano played shortstop in the minors back in 2002, but he had never played anywhere but second base in the majors. Cervelli had played second base once before, and he’s played third base once. Could Cervelli turn a double play? “Oh yeah, I can do it,” Cervelli said. “I take ground balls all the time. You’ve got to take it easy and try to do everything slow. When you rush is when you do bad things.”
• Describe the conversation with Girardi: “He just said, you go to shortstop,” Cano said. Well that’s not very exciting.
• One bright spot for the Yankees: Four scoreless innings from David Phelps. He allowed one hit — a single and thrown out trying to stretch a double — while walking none and striking out six. He looked terrific, but Girardi said it’s far too early to think about making a change to the rotation. “Phil had a pretty good year for us (last year),” Girardi said. “He’s had a couple of pretty good years as a starter for us. As far as Nova, he’s had one start and I don’t think it’s really fair to do that. No, I’m not really thinking of making any changes.”
• The Yankees seemed incredibly encouraged by Hughes when spring training opened. What’s different now? “I thought he was down in the zone more and I thought his command was really good early on in spring training,” Girardi said. “Then he went through the injury and I think it kind of set him back a little bit. We’ll just have to get that going again, what we saw.”
• Asked if Hughes needs to change his approach, Cervelli said it’s a change of execution that’s in order. “We’ve got to work on his fastball command,” Cervelli said. “That’s it. That’s his life. That’s his first pitch.”
• The Yankees have lost eight of their past 13 regular season games against the Orioles. They’ve also lost seven of their past 10 regular season home games against the Orioles.
• The Yankees actually reached base in each inning from the second through the eighth but stranded a runner (or two) each time. They were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
• The Ryan Flaherty home run in the second was the first by a Yankees opponent at Yankee Stadium this year. “I was trying to bury a slider on his back foot and was up and kind of in that left-handed hitter’s sweet spot,” Hughes said.
• Travis Hafner has three home runs in 10 games. That’s his fewest games to three home runs since 2009 when he hit three in the first five games. … Vernon Wells also has three homers, but I don’t have an obscure stat to add about him.
• This was Cano’s fourth straight multi-hit game. He’s gone 11-for-19 with eight RBI in the past four games. … On the flip side, Kevin Youkilis failed to get a hit for the first time this season. He had a nine-game hitting streak this year and an 11-game hitting streak dating back to last season.
• We’ll end with Hughes on being booed off the mound: “I’m used to it, unfortunately. It’s something you deal with when you’re not playing well. I got booed my rookie year, so I’ve kind of learned to deal with it.”
Associated Press photos