Revitalized Hughes lacks answers, not results
Yankees right-hander in midst of long-awaited breakout year
NEW YORK -- We come to Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes seeking simple answers for his transformation. Is it mechanics, Phil? Arm slot, right? Are we getting warm, Phil?
"It's always a grind," he said. "There are maybe two or three games a year where you're good from the get-go. It's always a game of adjustment."
OK, how about the training regime? You tweaked it, right? Stronger shoulder, better results, huh, Phil?
He has heard that one before. He's not biting.
At some point, we're almost pleading for Phil Hughes to tell us how he has resurrected his career.
To simple questions, there sometimes are no simple answers.
"Just aggressiveness more than anything," Hughes said. "Attacking guys. Leaving it all out there, and not trying to be too fine."
He was once going to be the next great Yankees pitcher, to follow in the footsteps of Whitey and Andy and all the others.
He was in the Major Leagues at 20 in 2007, and he was so big and strong that he reminded some of Roger Clemens.
He fulfilled every expectation two years ago by winning 18 games and making the American League All-Star Team. And then, something happened to Phil Hughes on the fast track to Cooperstown. He came undone.
He was diagnosed with a tired arm last season, and whether that was a lack of conditioning or a young guy adjusting to a Major League pitching load is open to interpretation.
He won five games last season and his ERA was a shade under 6.00. When the Yankees showed up for Spring Training, absolutely no one knew what the Yankees would get out of Hughes.
To his credit, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman believed in him. Cashman told anyone who would listen that Hughes was still going to accomplish great things.
He stocked up on starting pitching anyway, just in case, but he never stopped telling people that the Yankees still had something special in Phil Hughes.
At the moment, a lot of people are believing in Phil Hughes. They're believing in the Yankees, too.
With home runs flying out of the park and quality starts stacking up, the Bronx Bombers have won 12 of 16 to move a season-high eight games above .500 at 33-25. After spending a large chunk of the season in fourth place in the AL East, they're a mere half-game behind the first-place Rays.
And Hughes has been in the middle of all of it. He won his third straight decision Saturday night by allowing two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings as the Yankees beat the Mets 4-2 in front of 48,575.
Hughes won on a night when his changeup and curveball were so elusive that he stuck with his fastball most of the way. He pounded the strike zone with it, commanded it nicely and matched last season's victory total.
"My breaking ball was a little bit off today, and my changeup was a little bit in and out, and I was trying to get that going," he said. "But I relied on my fastball a lot, and I think that's what has been working overall as well as tonight."
He has allowed two earned runs or less seven times this season, including five of his last six starts. He has plenty of company, as Yankee starters have rolled up a 1.84 ERA over their last eight turns.
OK, now back to the reasons that Hughes went from a guy who seemed completely lost last season to one who appears back on the fast track of stardom. He's still only 25, too.
"I just think he had a year off," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Any player that takes a year off, sometimes it takes you time to get back to where you were. I think that's what we're seeing from him."
As for Hughes, he said the whole thing has been a process, that there hasn't been just one thing and probably never will be.
He credits Andy Pettitte with talking him through the expectations that go with being a young member of the Yankees. He also credits Pettitte and Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild with staying on Hughes about his mechanics and aggressiveness during games.
"I think Andy has been in Phil's shoes where there's high expectations from a young pitcher pitching in a situation where you don't really have time to grow as a young player," Girardi said. "You're thrown into a New York situation, and you're expected to perform. In some other cities, it's not always the case. They might say, `You're getting 25 starts no matter how you do.' I think Andy can help our young pitchers with that."
If there's a downside to Hughes' game, it's the home runs. He has allowed at least one in every start, the second-longest streak to start a season, behind Bert Blyleven's 14 straight games.
"The home runs are an issue," he said. "I'm a fly-ball pitcher so it's going to happen. I'd like to blame it on the ballpark, but those are pretty much going out anywhere."
He said it like it was one more thing to work on for the next few days. If he was feeling over any kind of hump, he declined to say so. He's a working man who'd had a good day at the office.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.