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Tag: Phil Hughes
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Gimme Five

Tuesday night’s 9-3 rout of the Oakland A’s was the Yankees’ 82nd victory, thus ensuring their 18th consecutive winning season. That’s a remarkable feat. What’s even more remarkable is that the streak isn’t even halfway to the team’s record of 39 straight winning seasons, done from 1926-64.

Phil Hughes started the game and watching his first few innings over again — isn’t DVR great? — it didn’t look like his stuff was that bad or that he was too far off with location. He wasn’t sharp, to be sure, but he didn’t appear wild enough to have issued five walks. There were some pitches that looked like they painted the outside corner or were within that two- to three-inch window to be called strikes, or were over the plate on the lower border of the strike zone. In short, they were pitches that were close enough that many umpires would have given the benefit of the doubt. The fastball had life, the curveball was good enough to get outs, and the changeups and cutters he mixed in enabled him to pitch out of jams.

More of a concern was the fact that three of the four hits Hughes allowed came when he was ahead in the count. The worst offenses came in the fourth inning, when he grooved an 0-1 fastball to Kevin Kouzmanoff that resulted in a hard single up the middle, and next, after two straight curveballs that kept the bat on Mark Ellis’s shoulder, Hughes threw a belt-high fastball on the outside corner, allowing Ellis to extend his arms and line it to right for a single. This is the same issue, not coincidentally, that has been plagued both of Javier Vazquez’s Yankee tours. A strikeout pitcher has to be able to put away hitters when he’s ahead in the count. Vazquez hasn’t demonstrated that with any consistency this year, and Hughes didn’t on Tuesday.

Michael Kay summed up Hughes’s start in the YES postgame: “When you look at his numbers, 16 wins, how can you complain? But when you watched this game, that’s not the way Phil Hughes wants to pitch.”

Indeed. Despite earning that 16th win, a total which is second-most in the American League, Hughes didn’t do much to instill confidence in Yankee fans that there’s a lock-down guy in the rotation behind CC Sabathia. Hughes seems to be the epitome of why wins can be a misleading stat when rating pitchers. With Andy Pettitte’s injury situation still in flux — he’s throwing another bullpen session before tomorrow’s game — A.J. Burnett as schizophrenic as ever, and any combination of Vazquez, Dustin Moseley, Sergio Meat Tray or even Chad Gaudin behind that, many have been waiting for Hughes to step up and be the No. 2 guy, and he hasn’t. Since the All-Star Break, he is 5-4 with a 4.65 ERA. His performance over the past two starts, particularly the number of pitches thrown — 200 in 8 2/3 innings — is helping to enforce the innings limit. He has thrown 149 1/3 innings now, and figuring he has at least five more starts, if the limit is 175 innings, Hughes is essentially a five-inning starter down the stretch.

Those are the negatives. The positives in this victory were all on the offensive side. The nine runs were scored in the first four innings. Nick Swisher (25th), Curtis Granderson (15th), and Mark Teixeira (30th) all homered for the Yankees, who scored six of those runs with two outs.

Teixeira’s home run marked the seventh straight year he’s hit 30 home runs, and he’s five RBIs away from his seventh straight 100-RBI season. He also scored his Major-League leading 100th run. What a turnaround for Tex. Three months ago, in this space, I wrote a column trying to prove that while Tex’s batting average was hovering near .200 and he was getting a free pass from the mainstream media, we in the blogosphere were not being as dismissive. Now, his average is up to .264 and with a month left, .280 or even .290 isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Tex’s batting average is now just two points behind that of Derek Jeter, who after another oh-fer has just one hit in his last 25 at-bats and is getting summarily hammered at all angles. Is this the beginning of the end? Is the contract on his mind? How can he command $20 million a year if this is the level at which he’ll be finishing his career? I heard one talkie late last week even compare Jeter’s recent slide to Willie Mays with the Mets in 1973. Are we there yet? I don’t think so. The Yankees have been able to cover for him in the same way they did Teixeira earlier this year, but we’ll see what happens in October.

The other positive of the evening: Toronto blasted Tampa, so the eight-day deadlock atop the AL East is broken. The Yankees hand their longest winning streak since the All-Star break to A.J. Burnett. Maybe a new month and a weak-hitting team is what he needs to get on the path to being right.

The Buffet is Open

After last night, let’s hope the Yanks have a big, ol’ feast tonight.

Pile it deep and high.

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

And here, dig this barbeque tour from Anthony Bourdain:

Part Two:


Over at PB, Jay Jaffe takes a look at the two-halves of Phil Hughes’ season:

On both sides of the line, Hughes has received virtually identical defensive support from his teammates, above-average support at that, given that the league batting average on balls in play is .294. He’s got two main problems: he isn’t striking out hitters at nearly the same clip as early in the year, and his home run rate has more than doubled. The latter is a byproduct of him generating fewer groundballs (which don’t go for homers) and getting a bit more bad luck on his increased number of fly balls (which do, given enough of ‘em).

Don’t Believe the Hype (It’s a Sequel)

Earlier in the week, Sean O’Sullivan handed the Yankees’ their ass while pitching for the Angels. Since, O’Sullivan has been traded to the Royals, and he’s on the hill again today. No offense to Mr. O’Sullivan, but I sure would expect the Bombers to come out a-sluggin’ this afternoon. Phil Hughes is on the hill for the Yanks, and it would be nice to see him have a good, strong, outing, now wouldn’t it?

Stay cool, cheer hard, eat well, and Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

[Picture by Bags]

Bats to the Pelfrey

Heading into today’s game with the Mets, I decided that based on everything I was reading, seeing and hearing, some media trends needed to be stopped:

* Thinking that one or two hits by a player in a slump immediately means he’s broken out of his slump (see Teixeira, Mark; and Posada, Jorge).

* This might anger some Banterers and I know it may upset Cliff — I apologize in advance — but the love for Posada’s offensive prowess needs to be tempered. Aside from the two grand slams he hit last weekend, maybe it’s just me, but I have little confidence that he’s going to drive in a run with men in scoring position. Any opposing pitcher with an above-average slider can throw that pitch at Posada’s back foot, regardless of whether he’s batting lefty or righty, and he’ll swing over the top of it.

* The Yankees’ recent offensive downturn has everything to do with the opposing pitchers. The Yankees beat up mediocre pitching, yes, but pitchers who change speeds give them fits. Neither Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick, nor Hisanori Takahashi light up the radar gun — Moyer barely registers a reading — but they threw strikes early in the count and kept the Yankees off balance by changing speeds.

Mike Pelfrey, the Mets’ starter on Saturday, is a similar pitcher to Roy Halladay, who the Yankees shelled for six runs in six innings on Tuesday. Granted, Pelfrey’s stuff isn’t as good as Halladay, but he’s a hard-throwing, sinker-slider type. As good as he’s been this season, sinkerballers have a propensity to leave pitches up in the strike zone, as Halladay did Tuesday. Pelfrey seemed due for one of those outings. Hence, in my mind, he was the perfect elixir to the Yankees’ anemic bats.

Another factor in the Yankees’ favor: they countered with Phil Hughes, who led the American League among pitchers to have made a minimum of five starts with a Run Support Average of 10.38. In his nine victories, the Yankees scored 88 runs.

The Yankees answered Jose Reyes’s leadoff home run with two hits and a run in the first. In the third, they answered another Reyes home run with a two-run shot off the bat of Teixeira. It was at this point of the YES telecast that a prescient conversation between Michael Kay and Paul O’Neill took place:

KAY: “For a pitcher like Hughes, he’s got to be thinking, ‘I’ve given up two home runs to Reyes and my team has picked me up.’ Now he’s got to pick his team up. He’s got to settle down and put up zeroes.”

O’NEILL: “That’s right. You have to start thinking, ‘I’ve had my bad innings, and if I can get cruising here for three or four innings, chances are my offense swings the bat today.”

That conversation took place in the fourth inning. Hughes put the Mets away on nine pitches. In the bottom half, Posada led off with a walk and Granderson got ahead in the count 2-and-1. Granderson then fouled off a few tough pitches before launching a hanging curveball into the box seats to give the Yankees a 5-3 lead.

Now with the lead, Hughes needed to respond. Reyes stepped to the plate with two outs and a runner on first. Hughes fell behind 1-0 and again 2-1. Hughes fought back with a good fastball that painted the outside corner to even the count. After Reyes fouled off another fastball, Hughes delivered a curveball on the outside part part of the plate that Reyes swung through to end the inning.

The Mets worked Hughes again in the sixth. Angel Pagan hit a one-out single and then advanced on a wild pitch, and Hughes proceeded to walk Ike Davis to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Jason Bay. Bay, who had seen just four pitches in his two previous at-bats, swung at the first pitch and grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the threat. Hughes had no problems working through the seventh inning and holding the two-run edge.

The Yankees’ offense had chances to break the game open in the sixth and eighth innings. In both innings, they had runners in scoring position with less than two outs — in the eighth, they had runners on second and third with no one out — and failed to score. Counting today, the Yankees have two hits in their last 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position. The lack of situational hitting, more than anything, has been the root cause of the Yankees’ offensive slide.

Another positive to take from Saturday: Joba Chamberlain pitched a scoreless eighth. Even better, he struck out David Wright without having to throw a fastball. Mariano Rivera followed by pitching a flawless ninth to close out the 5-3 victory.

The win snapped the Yankees’ three-game losing skid and ended the Mets’ eight-game run. As for Hughes, he didn’t have his best stuff, but he pitched well enough to preserve the lead he was given. He is now tied with David Price for the AL lead in wins (10), and furthered his case to become a member of the All-Star team.

Now it’s set up: Santana vs Sabathia for the series win. Should be a good baseball Sunday.

A Tie We Can Agree On

With a debate raging over our reactions to yesterday’s draw with England, we went to bed a Banter divided. Tonight, because of a tie of a different sort, a tie for first place, we’re reunited in contentment, or as our esteemed founder would say, as a bunch of heppy kets.

The Yankees completed their sweep of the Astros 9 to 5 just before the Marlins won their series with the Rays, dead-heating the AL East rivals at 40 and 23. The Rays’ funk came after the Yankees’ rut, but they are remarkably similar. After a blistering 21-8 start, the Yankees lost one to the Red Sox and proceeded to gag 12 of 20. The Rays were a mind-boggling 30-11 before getting swept by the same Red Sox on their way to losing 11 of 19. At least the Yankees can point to some injuries – the Rays can only blame gravity. And the schedule plays a part in this too. The Rays benefitted from a soft start, the Yankees are currently enjoying the Snuggle Fabric Softener portion of their schedule en route to a fluffy-fresh bounce back – 11 wins over the last 14 games.

If Phil Hughes falls short of any statistical milestones this season, I think he’ll look back on the rain-soaked battle with Tony Manzella in the sixth inning today and the ensuing four runs will stick between his teeth like broken pieces of sweet summer corn. Six innings, five hits, one inconsequential run and six strikeouts would have been another fine plank in his pleasantly plausible Cy Young platform. As the box score reads, he got bombed by the weak-hitting Astros. I was miffed about Jeter’s inability to get to Manzella’s topper, and before I could finish the grouse, Cash had homered.


Phil Steam Ahead

After a couple of poor outings, Phil Hughes pitched well against the Indians over the weekend and looks to continue his excellent first-half against the O’s tonight in the Bronx.

Go git ’em, Hoss and…

Let’s Go Yan-Kees.

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]

Prove It All Night

Tonight the Yankees look to go five-for-five in series in the young season and extend their current five-game winning streak to six. If that should happen thanks to another solid start from Phil Hughes, the latter would be as encouraging as the former. Hughes looked sharp early in his regular season debut against the Angels last Thursday. Though he ultimately walked five and ran up his pitch count in turn, limiting himself to five innings, he also held the Halos to two runs on three hits while striking out six. For all of my grousing about Joba Chamberlain being wasted in the bullpen, Hughes is every bit as important to the future of the Yankee rotation (and thus the Yankees’ future) and his time is now. His strong debut was more than just the cherry on top of the Yankees’ hot start.

Opposing Hughes will be Ben Sheets, who despite being a veteran All-Star, has something to prove himself coming off a season lost to elbow surgery and ill-timed free agency. After three starts, Sheets has a 2.65 ERA, but has walked two more than he’s struck out and hasn’t pitched past the sixth inning, leaving room for the A’s bullpen to blow his first two games. It’s a compelling matchup of talented hard-throwing right-handers at very different stages of their careers.

Randy Winn will start in right field tonight as Nick Swisher gets a curiously-timed day off after returning to his old haunt and breaking an extended 0-fer. Maybe he was proving it all night, too.

Great Expectations

Phil Hughes makes his first start of the season tonight. But first, dig one of the most stunning opening sequences in movie history:

Next: Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

Big Ben, Parliament

Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees’ two best right handed pitching prospects of my lifetime, don’t stand at a crossroads of their careers – they stand at a cloverleaf freeway entrance. Since 2007, Joba has been a starter, a reliever, a starter, a reliever, a starter, a reliever, a competitor for a starting job, and currently, a reliever. Phil has a more reasonable track record. He’s been a starter, a reliever and currently a starter. The buzz is that Joba may never make it as a starter, and if Phil also fails, they Yankees will have to ask if they handled them correctly.

Off the top of my head, I can think of several high profile, pitchers who jumped back and forth between starting and relieving roles and whose destinies were not forever derailed. Adam Wainwright and David Price pop immediately into mind as starters turned relievers turned back to starters with little detriment. And who could think that Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon were meant to do anything but hasten the extinction of rally caps and monkeys? Did the Yankees do anything that differently with Joba and Phil than has been done in the past?

I think the Yankees have a healthy respect for pitch counts and innings limits and are willing to pre-determine usage quantity for their young guys in the name of injury avoidance. But after that, I think they really don’t see much difference in which roles their pitchers accumulate those innings. What this may mean is that the arms are protected, but the starting pitching skills are severely under-developed.

Joba throws a 96-97 mph fastball out of the pen. He throws a 92-93 mph fastball in the rotation. Hughes throws 95 in the eighth, but only 91 in the first. These guys have to learn how to get out MLB hitters with the lesser stuff if they want to make it as starters. In short relief, they rarely work in a third pitch, and they never have to face any hitter more than once in a game.


Pinstriped Bible Breakdown

One advantage of today’s game being canceled is that it gives me room to share this roundtable discussion about the fifth-starter competition and spring training competitions in general that Jay Jaffe and I participated in over at Steven Goldman’s Pinstriped Bible on YES. A quick sample:

Cliff: . . . what Girardi is looking for (I assume and hope) is execution of pitches, game planning, the ability to set-up hitters, work out of jams, miss bats, avoid hard contact, turn lineups over, etc. This is the one time of year when I agree with those who diminish the importance of statistics. The sample is indeed too small, thus one bad outing, due to the after-effects of the flu or fatigue toward the end of an outing in which the pitcher in question is extending his pitch count, can ruin an ERA. Also, as Girardi has said, the first couple of spring starts are really tune-ups in which starters don’t use all of their pitches and are just trying to build arm strength and get a feel for things. So for Hughes and Chamberlain, as well, the charge is to execute in a high-pressure situation, to show what they can do, but I don’t think that necessarily means the pitcher with the better ERA is going to get the job. If Joba continues to struggle but suddenly finds it in his last two spring starts and looks like the guy from 2007 again, I think the job will be, and should be, his.

Read the rest here.

Yankee Panky: Spring Flinging

A month into spring training has yielded little in terms of newsworthy occurrences in Yankee camp.

The team announced it would not discuss or negotiate contract extensions for Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, or manager Joe Girardi until after the season, which is consistent with recent club policy. Nick Johnson missed time with back stiffness (uh-oh), but then rejoined the lineup (phew!). Indications, per Girardi, are that Johnson will bat second and that speed isn’t important, since Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are hitting behind him. That means Curtis Granderson, who Girardi hinted would be the team’s starting center fielder, will likely bat seventh or eighth, depending on Nick Swisher’s exploits. Granderson in center, coupled with Brett Gardner’s wet-noodle bat, means Randy Winn, um, win(n)s the left field job.

That brings us to the first of three major subsections of this week’s column.


Position Battles: Fifth Starter

There’s not a lot of intrigue in Yankee camp this year. The team arrives as defending champions and, as I wrote in my campers post, the 25-man roster is fairly predictable given the players in camp. Joe Girardi does have to work out how he’s going to distribute playing time in left and center field and decide on a basic batting order, but the roles of the players involved aren’t likely to change much no matter what he decides. The only significant suspense March holds for Yankee fans, save wondering if Nick Johnson can survive the month with all of his bones and ligaments intact, is in the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Fifth-starter battles are typically slap fights among assorted marginal minor leaguers and veteran retreads, but the battle in Yankee camp this spring pits the organization’s top two young arms against one another in a four-week competition that could have significant repercussions for the futures of both pitchers.

That would be a lot more exciting if there wasn’t as much fan fatigue over Joba Chamberlain’s pitching role as there is over Brett Farve’s flirtations with retirement, but it’s important to note that, for all of the debates, role changes, rule changes, and innings limits, the Yankees have Chamberlain exactly where they want him this spring, coming off a season of 160 innings pitched and ready to spend a full season in the rotation without having a cap placed on his innings pitched. For that reason, I believe that the Yankees are looking at the fifth starter’s job as Chamberlain’s to lose, though they’d ever admit it. Chamberlain is nine months older that Hughes and a season ahead of Hughes in terms of his innings progress (Hughes threw 111 2/3 innings between the minors, majors, and postseason last year; Chamberlain threw 100 1/3 in 2008). If Chamberlain claims the fifth-starter job this year, and the Yankees can find Hughes 150-odd innings, Hughes can follow Chamberlain into the rotation as a full-fledged starter in 2010 on the heals of the free agency of both Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez. If that happens, the Yankees will have established both young studs in the rotation before their 25th birthdays. They’re thisclose.

There are just two problems. First, Chamberlain got his innings to the right place last year, but his head and stuff seemed to go in the opposite direction. Second, getting Hughes 150 innings this year with Chamberlain eating up close to 200 in the rotation could prove to be as challenging as limiting Chamberlain to 160 last year.

Taking the latter first, the flip-side of the fifth-starter battle is the assumption that the loser will move back in to the eighth-inning role that both young pitchers have excelled at in recent seasons. In his 50 career major league relief appearances during the regular season, Chamberlain has posted a 1.50 ERA and struck out 11.9 men per nine innings while holding opposing hitters to a .182/.255/.257 line. Hughes, in 44 regular season relief appearances, all from last year, posted a 1.40 ERA and 11.4 K/9 while opposing batters hit .172/.228/.228. That sort of late-game dominance is hard to resist (thus the endless Joba debates), but both pitchers would be more valuable throwing 200 innings a year than 60, and given the impending free agency of Pettitte and Vazquez not to mention A.J. Burnett’s injury history, the Yankees have to resist slotting the loser of this spring’s competition into that role to such a degree that they’re unwilling to stretch him back out during the season, as they were with Hughes last year. Doing so would reset the clock on that pitcher’s journey toward the rotation and thus could severely damage his career path.


Yankee Panky: Hope Springs Eternal (when your roster is stacked)

Alex Belth said it perfectly. Spring seems eons away here in New York. Especially since we haven’t seen grass here in two weeks — longer if you live in Pennsylvania and further south in the mid-Atlantic region.

But pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training brings vitality to the discussions had in the local media marketplace and here in the blogosphere over the past three months. The Yankees have an unofficial count — if you pay attention to talk radio and are on top of the beat — of three questions:

1) Who will be the fifth starter?

2) Which young gun will be in the bullpen, Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes?

3) What will the batting order look like?

Taking these questions individually, the answer to the first questions will likely answer the second. Sunday afternoon, Sweeny Murti and Ed Coleman had Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland on WFAN and asked him point blank about taking the reins off of Joba, and whether that would give him an edge heading into spring workouts. Eiland said Chamberlain and Hughes are on equal footing in terms of the competition for the fifth starter, along with Chad Gaudin, Sergio Meat-Tray, and Alfredo Aceves.

The most sensible option outside of Chamberlain and Hughes, it seems, based on the numbers, is Gaudin. He didn’t post Aaron Small 2005 numbers by any means, but as Joba insurance, he was serviceable, allowing less than a hit per inning, 7.3 K/9, and a 125 ERA+. Not great, but not bad. Just what you expect from a fifth starter. But when you think of the dropoff from Javier Vazquez to Chad Gaudin, yikes.

Eiland said on Sunday in that WFAN interview that Hughes would be on an innings limit this year, but not with the same level of stringency as Joba Version 2K9. If that’s the case — just speculating here — the ideal situation is to have Joba in the fifth slot and Hughes in the bullpen. This wouldn’t be as difficult a decision if both twentysomethings hadn’t done so much to inspire confidence that either is better suited to be the last piece in the bridge to Mariano Rivera, or even Mo’s heir apparent.

Re: the batting order, there’s a consensus among the pundits on the following spots:

1. Jeter
3. Teixeira
4. A-Rod
5. Posada
6. Cano
8. Swisher
9. Gardner

The issue becomes who bats second: Curtis Granderson or Nick Johnson? And really, it’s a toss-up. Based on Johnson’s on-base percentage (.402 career OBP to Granderson’s .344 career OBP, Johnson has the edge. But despite Granderson’s propensity to strike out, his speed may allow him to see ample time in the two-hole. Granderson has grounded into just 18 double plays in his career, while Johnson grounded into 15 last season alone. Nick Swisher could even slide in, given the number of pitches he sees per at-bat. Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada could flip-flop at 5 and 6.

None of this is news. Given the way the Yankees entered camp last year, when we were discussing the merits of Selena Roberts’ book, Alex Rodriguez’s sincerity, whether CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and AJ Burnett had what it takes to thrive in New York, and overall, what it would take for the Yankees to make the playoffs, let alone win a World Series, maybe that’s a good thing. The only off-field issues left to talk about are the contracts of Girardi, Rivera, and Jeter, and those likely won’t be negotiated until after the season. Rivera may retire. But we have eight months to go before that speculation becomes more rampant.

For now, as Girardi said in his 30-minute powwow Wednesday, “It’s nice to be talking about baseball.”

And while we look out the window and see a wall of white with no threat of a thaw, it certainly is.

Yankee Panky: The Wang Stuff

Wednesday afternoon, Yankees GM Brian Cashman held a press conference in which he discussed Chien-Ming Wang’s return to the starting rotation.

“He’s a starter and he’s got a huge history of nothing but success,” he said. “It’s time to find time to slot him in.”

Now is, and was, that time. Wang made Cashman and manager Joe Girardi look smart for two innings, until he reverted to the pitcher whose ERA resembled the national debt ticker in midtown Manhattan. Was that what the Yankees were waiting for?

Speaking of waiting, the way the Yankees have treated Wang, admittedly rushing him back before accurately gauging his progress, one wonders if he was accelerated and placed in the starting rotation in order to be showcased to potential trade suitors. Cashman would never say that and no local scribes have gotten that provocative yet, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Newsday’s former Yankee beat man Jim Baumbach went there, sort of, giving some insight into the tenuous relationship the organization has had with Wang, going back five years.

The Yankees gladly would have traded Chien-Ming Wang in a package for Randy Johnson during the 2004 season if only the Diamondbacks had any interest in him. After the trade deadline passed with no moves, the Yankees even let Wang pitch in the Olympics, something they never would have done if they thought Wang was a legitimate prospect.

Is he right? Think about it. The Yankees could have signed Wang to a long-term deal last year, but opted not to. They instead signed Robinson Cano to a long-term deal and took Wang to salary arbitration, where the pitcher was awarded a $4 million contract. This year, the Yankees and Wang went to arbitration again, with the righty getting a $1 million raise.

Baumbach wasn’t done, though. In a column recapping Thursday’s victory, in which the Yankees got Wang off the hook, Baumbach wrote:

Seemingly every time the Yankees talk about Chien-Ming Wang, they reference how he won 46 games for them in the previous 2 1/2 seasons, as if that should count toward something here in 2009.

But we’re more than a third of the way through this season, and pretty soon the Yankees will have to come to grips with the fact that the pitcher who used to be their ace hasn’t been heard from since he hurt his right foot last June in Houston. And there’s no guarantees that pitcher is going to make it back this season.

It should be noted that the pitcher who won 46 games from 2006-08 only won one playoff game in that time frame. In 2007, his second straight 19-win season, he lost both of his ALDS starts, pitching just 5 2/3 innings over those two appearances and logging a 19.06 ERA. Why is this relevant? The Yankees told Wang what they thought of his ace status by shelling out $242 million in long-term contracts to pitchers they believed had a better upside. That the 2009 version of Wang looks more like the pitcher who faced Cleveland in ’07 as opposed to the one who helped lead that team to a wild-card berth hasn’t helped his case.

As far as Phil Hughes is concerned, he is in the bullpen now, and as Baumbach and others have written, the Yankees view his future in the rotation. The same is true with Wang. He’s viewed as a starter. But what happens if and when Brian Bruney or Damaso Marte return to their respective relief spots? Whose future is in the Yankees’ rotation then? Will the Yankees wait that long to make their move?

We’ll know the answers soon enough.

Yankee Panky: The Tao of Pooh-vano

There was so much hype about Carl Pavano facing the Yankees. The tabloids ate it up, and Suzyn Waldman, as far back as the Texas series, said, “If there’s any justice, C.C. Sabathia will pitch against Carl Pavano in Cleveland.”

Sabathia and Pavano both pitched, but not against each other. Sabathia faced his No. 2 two years ago, Fausto Carmona, on Saturday, while Pavano squared off against Phil Hughes, which may have been a more intriguing matchup considering Pavano’s history with the Yankees and his five victories in May, and Hughes’ stellar outing in Texas and continued effort to stay in the rotation.

As I was listening to the game on the radio (another Sunday spent driving), I got to thinking about the myriad options the local editors and writers had for the game. Would Pavano be the lead? Would I make Phil Hughes’ mediocre start coupled by Chien-Ming Wang’s three scoreless innings of relief the lead, playing up the intrigue of Wang’s possible return to the rotation? Poor umpiring was a theme of the day. Where would that fit in? Are all these topics combined into one or do you do take one story as your base and go with the others as supplemental pieces?

I probably would have made Pavano the focus of the game story and made Hughes/Wang a featured supplement, tying in the early note that Andy Pettitte expects to be ready to start on Wednesday. How would you have presented Sunday’s game? Thinking of the broadest audience possible, how would you have set up your Yankees section as an editor? How would you have attacked the game if you were on-site? It’s two different thought processes. I’m curious to get your thoughts.

An examination of the eight local papers covering the Yankees revealed the following:

NY TIMES: Jack Curry had Pavano leading but alluded to the Hughes/Wang situation, melding everything into a tidy recap with analysis and historical context. Typical goods from Mr. Curry.

NEWSDAY: Three individual stories from Erik Boland, who’s now off the Jets beat and has replaced Kat O’Brien: Hughes/Wang leading, a Pavano piece tied with notes, and a short piece on Gardner’s failure to steal.

NY POST: As of this writing, only George King’s recap had been posted. Interesting to see that he focused on the bullpen, specifically Coke and David Robertson. (Had I been reporting, that would have been the angle I took with the game recap.)

NY DAILY NEWS: Mark Feinsand tied everything together, but it looked and read strangely like an AP wire story.

JOURNAL NEWS: No full game recap posted, but Pete Abe gives more in about 200 words on a blog than most other scribes do in 800.

STAR LEDGER: Marc Carig copied off Erik Boland’s paper in that he had individual stories on Gardner and Wang/Hughes, But he had a couple of other tidbits: 1) His recap was short and had additional bulletpointed notes. I thought this was an interesting format. It reminded me of an anchor calling highlights and then reading key notes off the scoreboard graphic. 2) He had a full feature on Phil Coke and his blaming the umpire’s call on the 3-2 pitch to Trevor Crowe. Check out the last paragraph. Looks like he copied off Pete Abe’s paper, too.

BERGEN RECORD: Only one story on the game from Pete Caldera, but boy does he know how to write a lead paragraph.

HARTFORD COURANT: Associated Press recap. Not much to say except this paper is an example of what’s happening in the industry. Dom Amore’s words are missed.

And this just in … on the “Inside Pitch” segment of the midnight ET edition of Baseball Tonight, Karl Ravech and Peter Gammons said the Yankees were the best team in baseball. This revelation comes hours after the ESPN ticker read “Pavano dominates Yankees” in the first half of its description of the game. I’m not sure what to make of this. I know Ravech, my fellow Ithaca College alum, is as good as it gets, but when Gammons agrees, I get concerned.

I’d say the best team is the team with the best record, and the team that’s playing most consistently on a daily basis. That team is being managed by Joe Torre.

Texas Hold ‘Em

Phil Hughes delivers a Memorial Day win (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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.


Whaddya Got Kid?

I called in to “New York Baseball Today” this afternoon to talk about what should become of Phil Hughes upon Chien-Ming Wang’s return to the rotation, which could happen by Monday . . .

As I say at the top there, today’s start is very important for Hughes. Since dominating the Tigers in his first major league start this season (6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K), he’s gone 0-2 with an 11.81 ERA and in his last three. The narrative there is that Hughes, particularly in the opinion of his manager, was squeezed horribly by home plate umpire Jerry Meals in his second start (4 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 94 pitches against Boston), was unable to escape a second-inning jam in his third start (1 2/3 IP, 8 R, 0 K in Baltimore), but proved he could work out of jams in his fourth start (5 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 2 K in a no-decision against the Twins). If Hughes can atone for that one truly awful start in his rematch against the Orioles tonight and build on his ability to work out of jams (or avoid them altogether), he’ll have gone a long way toward affirming his once-again strong standing in the eyes of the organization, regardless of the outcome of the game.

Hughes would also do well to invert his K/BB ratio from those last three games (4:10), and to keep the oposition in the park after allowing four homers in those three starts. Though I do like the idea of putting Hughes in the bullpen for the short term as a possible shadow for Wang, should the returning groundballer continue to struggle, as an occasional spot-starter for Joba Chamberlain, and simply to increase his exposure to major league hitting (and umpiring), Hughes would have to earn such a move by showing progress tonight. Otherwise, the seemingly inevitable option back to Triple-A will be as appropriate as it is obvoius.

Hughes also has the pressure of keeping the Yankees’ seven-game winning streak alive. I was watching something on Game 6 of the 1986 World Series recently (perhaps the MLB Network’s “Seasons” show on 1986). The show told of how every hitter that got to first base in the bottom of the tenth inning of that game told first-base coach Bill Robinson, “I wasn’t going to be the guy to make the last out of the World Series.” I feel as though the Yankee starters are doing something similar, each taking the mound thinking “I’m not going to be the guy who stops this winning-streak.”

Hughes will throw to Kevin Cash for the second straight start. Opposing starter Jeremy Guthrie has twice allowed three runs in six innings to the Yankees this year, doing so in a winning effort on Opening Day and a losing effort in Alex Rodriguez’s first game back from the DL, both starts coming against CC Sabathia.


“Maybe I’ll get some sleep tonight. I haven’t been doing that much lately.” —Dave Eiland

Welcome back, Phil Hughes.

You wouldn’t know it by the 11-0 final, but last night’s game between the Yankees and Tigers was a pitchers’ duel. Phil Hughes and Edwin Jackson locked horns for six scoreless innings before the Yankees dropped a ten-spot on the Detroit bullpen in the seventh.

Credit the Yankee offense, particularly Robinson Cano, for running deep counts on Jackson all game. Jackson finished the sixth inning having thrown 117 pitches despite having allowed just five men to reach base. With Jackson spent and the game still scoreless entering the seventh, Jim Leyland called on rookie Ryan Perry, a second-year professional who topped out in High-A last year. Perry faced five batters and retired just one, that being Jose Molina, who bunted Nick Swisher (single) and Melky Cabrera (walk) up to set up another key pinch-hitting appearance for Jorge Posada. Posada, who didn’t start for the second straight day due to a sore hamstring, lifted a low fly to left field that Josh Anderson appeared to lose in the Comerica Park lights. The ball skipped past Anderson allowing the gimpy Posada to reach second and both runners to score. After another walk by Perry, Nate Robertson and Brandon Lyon combined to allow seven more Yankees to score. The final blow was a grand slam by Molina that made him the rare player to have a sac bunt and a grand slam in the same inning (it was last done by Sal Bando in 1975, coincidentally also in the seventh inning). The inning went on so long that Angel Berroa, who pinch-ran for Posada, came to bat and singled off Lyon after Molina’s salami. Nick Swisher, who scored twice in that inning and broke out of his slump with two hits and two walks, added the eleventh run with a solo homer off Juan Rincon in the top of the ninth.

Hughes delivers (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)The real story of the night, however, was Hughes, who worked six scoreless innings allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out six. Spotting his fastball, which was coming in around 93 miles per hour, and mixing in a deadly, low-70s curve, and his new high-80s cutter, Hughes picked up right where he left off from the eight strong innings he threw against A.J. Burnett and the Blue Jays late last September. With his hair a bit bushier, faint sideburns, and what appeared to be a generally fuller build, Hughes looked and pitched like a more mature pitcher than the one we saw last year despite his still-tender age of 22.

Hughes received no favors from home plate umpire Derryl Cousins, who called several curves that dropped into the strike zone and a couple of fastballs right on the lower right-hand corner balls (included in the latter was ball four of one of Hughes’ two walks), yet he didn’t lose his cool or his confidence. He got into one jam, that coming in the fourth inning. With one out, he hit Miguel Cabrera in the hand. Carlos Guillen then singled and both runners moved up on a groundout. Hughes pitched around the hot-hitting Brandon Inge and got the light-hitting Josh Anderson to ground out to end the threat. He then set the side down in order in the fifth and sixth before his 99-pitch count (inflated by Cousins’ strike zone) and the Yankees’ long top of the seventh ended his night.

Hughes best pitch of the night came on a 0-1 count to Placido Polanco with two out in the bottom of the fifth. It was a curveball that Polanco was convinced was coming right at his head. A look of total fear came over Polanco’s face as he began to bail. The pitch then dropped over the plate for a called strike on the inside corner, knee-high. Sick.

Hughes was followed by Mark Melancon, whom Joe Girardi had warming up before the game became a laugher. Melancon worked a 1-2-3 seventh, striking out Inge in the process. I can’t wait to see Hughes and Melancon team up again.

The Kid Stays In The Picture


Last night’s pitching matchup of Phil Hughes and likely free agent A.J. Burnett almost felt like an open audition for a spot in the Yankees 2009 rotation. I’m happy to report, Phil Hughes passed the audition. Hughes had a nasty curve working last night and used it to great effect, neutralizing yet another dominant outing against the Yankees by Burnett. After lasting just four inefficient innings in his return to the majors his last time out, Hughes stretched 100 pitches (71 of them strikes) across eight full innings, striking out six (all on curveballs), walking none, and allowing just two runs on five hits. Hughes was actually beating Burnett 2-1 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, but Scott Rolen shot a 1-1 curve over the wall in left center to knot it up at 2-2. Hughes, who was hoping to pick up his only major league win of the season, was furious at himself for allowing Toronto to tie the game, but settled down to retire the next four batters and pass the game to the bullpen.

After Jesse Carlson and Jose Veras swapped zeros in the ninth, Juan Miranda, who started at first and picked up his first major league hit in the fourth, led off the tenth with a double. Chad Moeller failed to bunt Miranda to third, but wound up working an eight-pitch walk, passing the buck to Brett Gardner, who bunted the runners up on the first try. Carlson hit Robinson Cano with his next offering to load the bases, and Bobby Abreu cashed it all in with a grand slam that handed the Yankees a 6-2 win. Sidney Ponson, of all people, pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the tenth to seal the deal.

“One good outing isn’t going to erase an awful season with injuries and being in the minor leagues,” said Hughes, “but it’s good to end on a positive note and carry that over into next year.” Hughes didn’t get the win, but he shaved 1.3 runs off his season ERA. He finishes the year having thrown just 69 2/3 innings between the majors and minors and will go on to pitch in the Arizona Fall League in order to get his innings total up to a higher baseline for next season, though he’s unlikely to get past 100 innings all together, even with the AFL work.

Still, Hughes looked great last night. Joe Girardi said, “he did everything right tonight.” His curveball, which is his put-away pitch, was monstrous, and the cutter he developed this summer is already rivaling his four-seamer. When Hughes is able to locate the latter, he should be able to dominate the way we’ve all expected him to, which was exactly the case last night. Phil Hughes needed that start, and the Yankees needed that start. True, one good outing won’t erase the lost season that preceded it, but it served an important reminder that Hughes is still one of the top pitching prospects in the game.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver