With the pace that the Yankees started this season on, it was only fair to expect a letdown at some point in time. They were running out a bunch of has-beens and Triple-A players, yet they still found ways to win.
But what no one would have predicted is that the real collapse would come once the regulars that they were patiently waiting for all season finally arrived.
“You go through good times, bad times, and everything in between,” Phil Hughes said after yet another underwhelming start. “When you’re struggling for extended periods of time, it’s difficult, for sure. This game is not easy. It’s not like I can just flip a switch and go out and have a good outing. Sometimes it takes some good breaks, some good bounces, and maybe you get on a roll from that. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me in this situation. I just have to try and find a way out of it.”
Hughes was the biggest culprit in Saturday’s 9-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers, and he certainly seems to be booking his ticket out of New York this offseason. But collectively, the Yankees haven’t received the boost that they had hoped for from some of their formerly injured stars, and have now put themselves in a position where it would take a miracle to reach the postseason.
“There are 48 games (left) or whatever, and coming down to the end of the year, we kind of hold everything in our own hands playing in our division late,” said an overly optimistic Joba Chamberlain, who gave up a three-run homer to Torii Hunter in the sixth. “We just have to continue to grind. Obviously, we have enough guys in here who have done it before and won. We know how to win, we just need to come out and get on a roll.”
• It’s amazing to think about how Hughes’ and Chamberlain’s careers have unfolded. Once considered the future pillars of the Yankees’ pitching staff, they’re now struggling to keep their jobs. Hughes had back-to-back strong seasons in 2009 and 2010, pitching as a key reliever for the Yankees’ championship team in ’09 and winning 18 games as a starter in ’10. Chamberlain displayed electric stuff when he was first called up in 2007, leading many to view him as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera. But since those early years, neither has been able to find consistency at the big league level. “These guys have had success, and they’ve had struggles,” manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s probably the case for most major league players. There are very few guys who kind of just roll through a career and not have struggles. It’s how you approach those struggles, and how you fight through them. I’ve always said that the trick is not getting to the big leagues; the trick is staying.”
• Hughes labored from the get-go, allowing a leadoff triple to Austin Jackson in the first and giving up a sac fly to Hunter to put the Yankees in a 1-0 hole. He threw 27 pitches in the first inning, setting himself up for a short outing. “They put long at-bats on him,” Girardi said. “Anytime you average over three strikes per hitter, those are long at-bats. And that’s what happened today.”
• Long at-bats have haunted Hughes all season, as he constantly seems to struggle to put guys away early in the count. Call it the lack of an out-pitch, call it his tendency to give up fly balls (and lots of homers) or simply call him overrated. Whichever way you want to look at it, Hughes just doesn’t seem comfortable out there. “It’s been really difficult,” he said. “It’s tough to go through times like this. It’s been a grind, and it’s something that’s tough to live with everyday. I’m working as hard as I can on the side to try and figure something out. That part of it won’t stop. I have to keep grinding and fight my way out of this one way or another.”
• For the third consecutive start, Hughes didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. Today, he went 4 1/3 innings, but he had only allowed three runs at the time he was pulled. The bigger issue was his pitch count, but he also gave up homers to Miguel Cabrera and Jackson. He’s now allowed 22 homers this season, with 16 coming at Yankee Stadium. “Being a fly ball pitcher, it makes it more difficult – there’s no doubt about it,” Girardi said. “When you think about right field (at Yankee Stadium) and teams that have plenty of left-handed hitters, it makes it somewhat difficult. He has had a hard time at times keeping the ball down in the zone, and teams put long at-bats on him. It’s gotten him in trouble.”
• Seriously, how good is Cabrera? He’s killed Hughes in his career, and went 2 for 2 off of him today to improve his lifetime average against him to .560 (14 for 25). The ball that he hit out was way inside, but he still managed to shoot it out of the ballpark. Hughes will be having nightmares about him. “We’ve seen a lot of unbelievable things from him in the last five years, so nothing really surprises me,” Hughes said. “I would have liked for it to have been up a little bit more, but it was well in off the plate. Just for him to be able to keep that fair is unreal, and to go out of the ballpark is another thing. He hits basically any pitch, anywhere, and you just have to hope that he has a bad day against you.”
• Hughes is clearly beating himself up over how bad he’s been, and you have to give him credit for his professionalism while dealing with an unforgiving media. He repeatedly talked about how “tough” it’s been on him, saying, “It bothers me more than anybody.” Girardi was asked if he thinks Hughes is hurting mentally. “That’s something you have to deal with all of the time,” he said. “I think for every player it’s different. Phil has been a guy who’s pretty good at turning the page and going out and working and doing the things that he has to do. But when you get hit around, it has to be difficult.”
• It might seem like Hughes’ rotation spot should be in jeopardy, but with David Phelps, Vidal Nuno and Michael Pineda each dealing with their own health issues, Hughes probably isn’t going anywhere. “Right now, I don’t know if we have any options,” Girardi said. “So we need him to pitch well; that’s the bottom line.”
• While Hughes was bad, Preston Claiborne may have been even worse. He came in with a man on and one out in the fifth, and ended up giving up four earned runs of his own. That put the Yankees’ in an even deeper hole, and then Chamberlain gave up a homer to Hunter to put the game out of reach. “One bad pitch, and these guys are good enough to make one bad pitch (hurt),” Joba said. “He’s been doing it for long enough. One bad pitch I made in an inning and two-thirds, and he made me pay for it. You can’t change it. You obviously have to make a better pitch there.”
• Joba has been even worse than Hughes this season, and was asked if it’s difficult to stay sharp when his outings are so few and far between. “You have to make sure you get your stuff in between outings, and work on what you need to work on,” he said. “Continue to throw your bullpens, and when you get the opportunity, you need to pitch well.”
• The poor pitching was the story today, but the Yankees’ offense didn’t help much. The only guy to do any damage was Lyle Overbay, who has probably been the most underrated member of the team all year. He hit a two-run homer in the fifth and added an RBI single in the ninth to drive in all three Yankee runs. The rest of the Yankees’ offense combined for four hits and 11 strikeouts. “If the middle of your order struggles, a lot of the time you’re going to struggle,” Girardi said. “You can’t expect the same guys to do it every night. A lot of our hits came from the top of the order, and we need production throughout the order, or it’s hard to put up big run totals… It can’t just fall on one or two guys.”
• Alfonso Soriano has added a little pop to the lineup since coming over from the Chicago Cubs, but he also strikes out a ton. He’s been struggling the past few games, and Girardi was asked what he sees from him at the plate. “For him, when he gets a good pitch to hit, he usually hits it,” Girardi said. “When he chases pitches, those are tough to center. You look at some of the pitches that have been down in the zone that he’s gone after, they’re hard to put in play – and really hard to hit them hard and do some damage.”
• I’ll give the final word to Joba, who was asked about how tough it is to see Hughes struggle the way he has been: (PS — Can you believe I made it through an entire post without mentioning A-Rod???) “It’s a battle,” he said. “This game is hard, and especially when you go and continue to get your work in and try to figure out things. He’s always trying to ask questions and do the right thing. This game is humbling. It’s going to do that to you, and it’s how you react. He’s going out there and doing everything that he can to try and fix it. We’re behind him as teammates.”
Associated Press photos