Phil Hughes likes pitching in Arlington, Texas. Hughes made his second major league start in Arlington on May 1, 2007 and threw 6 1/3 hitless innings before tearing his left hamstring and being forced to leave the game. Yesterday, he returned to Arlington to pitch a Memorial Day matinee and once again dominated a powerful Rangers’ lineup.
The Yankees spotted Hughes two runs in the top of the first on doubles by Derek Jeter (taking a half-day off at DH) and Mark Teixeira and infield singles by Johnny Damon and Alex Rodriguez. Hughes responded with a 1-2-3 bottom of the inning. If there was a turning point in the game, which ended in an 11-1 Yankee route, it came in the bottom of the second. Nelson Cruz led off with a first-pitch double, after which Hughes hit Hank Blalock with a 1-1- pitch to put two men on with none out. Hughes then fell behind Marlon Byrd 3-0, but rallied to strike him out on a generous call on a fastball low and away. He followed that by striking out Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden on curveballs to strand both runners. The Yankees responded in the top of the third by pushing across four more runs against Texas starter Matt Harrison (the key hits being doubles by Damon and Rodriguez and a two-RBI triple by Robinson Cano). That was the ball game.
Hughes got through the bottom of the third on seven pitches, stranded a lead-off double in the fourth, needing just nine tosses in that frame, and pitched around another double in the fifth. The only walk he issued was to Michael Young leading off the sixth, but Young never got past first base. Hughes got through the seventh on just nine pitches, striking out Chris Davis on three of them, and needed just nine more to work a 1-2-3 eighth.
Hughes had shown considerable improvement in his previous two games, proving he could work out of jams against the Twins, then correcting his problematic strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Orioles. The only things he had left to fix were his inefficiency with his pitches and his tendency to give up home runs. Neither was a problem yesterday, as he held the Rangers scoreless for eight frames needing just 101 pitches to do it. His final line: 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K.
Over his last two starts, Hughes has struck out 15 in 13 innings against just two walks, and he’s now been legitimately dominant twice in six starts since being recalled. After featuring his fastball against the Orioles his last time out, he rode the effectiveness of his curveball yesterday. He has done everything the Yankees could ask for in terms of learning on the job and making strides toward being the pitcher the team has long hoped he’d be. Though no official announcement has been made, it now seems that Hughes’ rotation spot is his to lose and Chien-Ming Wang will hang out in the bullpen until a spot opens up or he shows the Yankees that he’s completely over his early-season struggles, which he has yet to do. Hughes will have to continue to build on his success, stay healthy, and eventually may have to deal with innings-limit concerns (his career high was 146 in 2006, he threw just 110 1/3 in 2007 and a mere 69 2/3 last year), but thus far he’s shown himself to be up to the challenge.
After Hughes’ strong eighth-inning yesterday, Joe Girardi extended his hand to the young right-hander to offer him congratulations for a job well done. Hughes looked at his manager’s hand and grimaced. He didn’t want to come out of the game, though he relented after some quick cajoling from the skipper.
Alfredo Aceves pitched the ninth, giving up a solo home run to Nelson Cruz, but nothing more. As for all those Yankee runs, four of them were driven in by Alex Rodriguez, who went 5-for-5 with a pair of doubles, raising his average 70 points in the process. Nick Swisher drove in three on a groundout, a single, and a sac fly. Collectively, the Yankees picked up 19 hits, beating up on both Harrison and long reliever Kris Benson. With the win, the Yankees slipped past the Blue Jays into second place in the AL East, one game behind the Red Sox.
In less encouraging news, Brian Bruney has landed back on the disabled list after proving to have never been fully healthy in the first place and attempting to pitch through pain in his elbow. Bruney’s last MRI showed no structural damage, but he is now on his way to see Dr. James Andrews. The Yankees aren’t pleased.
David Robertson is on his way back up from Scranton, where he has now struck out 25 men against six walks and no homers in 14 2/3 innings on the season. In his earlier stint with the big club this year, Robertson struck out seven in 4 2/3 innings, again without allowing a homer, but did walk four men. He was never called on to protect a lead or with the Yankees tied or trailing by as little as one run.
As for the silly red caps the Yankees (and every other major league team) wore yesterday, I’ll leave the ranting to the fine folks over at Uni Watch. I’ll only add that the last time the Yankees wore a non-navy blue cap during the regular season was 1921, when they wore white caps with blue pinstripes at home, and the only time they’ve worn anything other than their traditional blue cap with white NY since then was last year, when MLB had them wear this cap as part of a league-wide Independence Day cash-in.
I’m pleased that baseball acknowledges Memorial Day so overtly, but while moments of silence amid afternoon ballgames feel right, the gimicky league-wide coordination of such moments of silence (honoring the “national moment of remembrance” which dates all the way back to 2001) and gaudy uniform shenanigans don’t seem like the most appropriate way to honor those lost at war.