Even in defeat, Hughes takes a huge step forward
So, with Ivan Nova back in the Majors for now and the Texas Rangers on the docket, perhaps even Phil Hughes - despite saying he had no added pressure on him - knew that he needed a strong start Thursday to solidify his place in the Yankees rotation.
On that front, mission accomplished.
Hughes pitched a season-high tying eight innings Thursday, spinning a quality start that saw him give up two runs - one which came on an admitted mistake - and allow just five hits to a potent Texas offense.
"He was really good today, and he probably should've only given up the one run on the home run," manager Joe Girardi said of Hughes' performance. "His fastball command was good, and I thought his slider was better today too; he got some swings and misses on that and located it better, so the combination of those two things was the important part."
Hughes had a full week's rest after last pitching in the June 19 doubleheader against the Dodgers, and he felt that gave him a bit of an edge heading into Thursday afternoon.
"I felt like having the last week or so helped me out, let me gather my thoughts and work out some things on the side, and I felt like I had a better plan and better mechanics today," Hughes said. "I was just trying to keep a better plane to home plate and keep my momentum in the right direction."
And yet, all that and a quality start to boot wasn't enouh, as the Yankees offense mustered just two hits off Derek Holland - the same total as Texas rookie Engel Beltre - and never had a baserunner on third base en route to a 2-0 loss.
"He pitched way too good to get a loss. You want to win those games or at least give him a shot," Lyle Overbay said after game.
Fact is, they didn't, but it was progress nonetheless for Hughes. Dominant the first two innings, he ran into trouble in the third and gave up the first run, escaping further trouble thanks to a bizarre putout at second base on what ended up being a walk to Jurickson Profar.
An inning later, he gave up a leadoff double to Nelson Cruz and hit Adrian Beltre with a pitch, but got three fly balls to escape and would allow just two hits the rest of the way: an infield single by Beltre and Profar's solo home run that came from "overthinking the situation and throwing two straight changeups."
Unfortunately, the damage had been done, as Jayson Nix's seventh-inning single was the only blemish Holland would allow over the final five frames.
"Phil threw the ball well today; he deserved a lot more than what he got," Vernon Wells said after the game. "When you only give up two runs against a team like that, that's doing your job. He did his job today, we just couldn't get anything going."
Hughes, for one, wasn't hating on his offense, though.
I've gotten plenty of run support in the past, but you go through stretches of struggles and the pitchers have to do a better job of keeping us in the game," he said. "Maybe after the home run, guys felt like they had to pressing because it's two runs instead of one, but it's my job to keep trying to throw up as many zeroes as I can and trust that they're going to score runs."
And, even if he took his seventh loss of the season, he "When you're trying to get through a rough stretch it helps to step back and take some deep breaths … I've been hearing (the talk of his potential removal from the rotation) it for so long that I know what to expect and know I'll have to answer the questions," Hughes said. "Every time I take the ball, I clear my head and go out there and do the best I can; I don't let the talk get to me."
And clearly, Girardi was pleased with what he saw.
"Hughesy wants to pitch, he wants the ball every fifth day. … We know he's capable of doing it, he's done it before, and he went out and did it today."
David Phelps, CC Sabathia, and Hiroki Kuroda will pitch the weekend series in Baltimore, and after saying "I won't say Hughes is pitching for his spot" pregame, Girardi admitted after the game that he did not know yet what the plan was for Nova.
Once again, perhaps, mission accomplished for Hughes, at least for now.