Phil Hughes has had many labels in his short career. Add "reliable October starter" to the list
This is an article from the Oct. 18, 2010 issue
PHIL HUGHES already has had what would be a career's worth of experiences for most players. He was a can't-miss savior who in 2007 was ranked as the game's fourth-best prospect by Baseball America. A year later he was seen as an injury-prone bust. In the last 12 months he has been a shutdown setup man on a world championship team; an All-Star caliber starter; and then, as this postseason began, the least experienced member of what was viewed as a thin Yankees rotation. Over four big league seasons Hughes has developed from a skinny, buzz-cut rookie named Philip into a thick-chested, 240-pound veteran with a fashionable quasimullet who goes by a manlier monosyllabic name.
Still, Hughes is just 24; he was the youngest player not only on New York's roster for last week's ALDS matchup with the Twins but also the youngest in the series. Although he had pitched in the playoffs before—12 innings of work, including a win in the 2007 ALDS in relief of Roger Clemens—he had not made a postseason start until last Saturday. Hughes, though, insisted that he felt no trepidation in advance of the outing, which came in a potential series-clincher at Yankee Stadium, no less. "I know the atmosphere," he said beforehand. After Hughes and the Yankees easily brushed aside the Twins, 6--1, and sealed a sweep of Minnesota in the ALDS for the second straight year, rightfielder Nick Swisher confirmed the young righthander's confident attitude. "Seeing him earlier this afternoon, I knew he was going to have a great game tonight," Swisher reported, his eyes shielded by blue-tinted goggles to ward off the sting of spraying Chandon. "He was just chill. Relaxed."
Hughes made July's All-Star Game due to his 11--2 record and 3.65 ERA in the first half, but after taking the loss in that game, he was ordinary for the rest of the season. He went 7--6 with a 4.90 ERA in the second half, leading to fears that he had worn down while logging 176 1/3 innings, more than twice his previous career high (86). Against the Twins, though, Hughes was strong and sharp. He relied mostly on well-located 91- to 94-mph fastballs to retire the first nine hitters he faced and 12 of the first 13. By the time Hughes allowed his second hit of the night, a fifth-inning single to Delmon Young, the Yankees were already up 5--0 and on their way to their ninth American League Championship Series appearance in 15 years. Hughes's final line: four hits and no runs allowed in seven innings. "Tonight was kind of a coming-out party for him," third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "That was, Hello, America."
Nearby Hughes chatted with reporters, wearing a threadbare Yankees workout shirt with holes beneath its left armhole. He knows the proper attire for champagne celebrations in big league clubhouses—even relatively muted ones like this one—as he's already participated in seven of them. He also knows the proper thing to say when you are a Yankee who has just clinched the ALDS. "We're just happy to get this one out of the way and look forward to the next series," he said. "This is clearly a step in the right direction."
Hughes will not pitch again until Game 3 of the ALCS, by which time he'll be well rested—New York's expeditious elimination of the Twins meant that the team didn't even work out on Sunday or Monday. He'll most likely face the ace of either the Rays or the Rangers, David Price or Cliff Lee. (The two lefthanders were scheduled to face each other in Game 5 of the other ALDS on Tuesday; the winner won't be available to pitch until Monday at the earliest.) Hughes's encouraging debut as a postseason starter, combined with the fact that Andy Pettitte (two runs allowed in seven innings in his Game 2 win over the Twins) appears to be fully recovered from a midseason groin strain, means the Yankees' rotation suddenly has depth behind ace CC Sabathia. Hughes may have to pull on that ratty workout shirt for yet another champagne dousing.