There was a pitcher 3 years ago that Yankee fans had heard much about. He was named the #1 prospect by Baseball America. He was reputed to be the complete package as a pitcher. Plus fastball, plus-plus curve, outstanding command and control of both pitches with a mound presence and Baseball IQ that scouts drooled over. His health history was relatively clean, with only some minor, mostly non-arm related injuries that didn’t seem worrisome. In every way that a pitching prospect is measured, Phil Hughes seemed to excel in each category.
He earned himself a quick April 26th call up in 2007, where he pitched a forgettable first game as a Yankee, giving up 4 ER in 4.1 IP. Chalk it up to first start jitters for the 20 year old pitcher. His next start was in Texas, which was far more memorable for both good and bad reasons. On the plus side, he threw 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the young and inexperienced free-swinging Rangers. But in the 7th, he pulled his hamstring on the mound immediately after delivering a pitch, which would be the last he would throw for the Yanks until August 4th of that season. It all seemed to go awry for Phil after that pulled hamstring. He even broke his ankle while rehabbing, getting his spike caught in the grass as he performed drills. Upon his return, the life on the fastball never returned that season, and the confidence and swagger he was known for in the minor leagues seemed to be lost along with it. Even the following year, he pitched poorly in April of 2008 and was found to have a broken rib, shelving him until August. He wouldn’t see a major league roster again until September call up, where he pitched well in a few meaningless late season games. Yankee fans had soured on Phil at this point, and went from viewing him as an exciting prospect to an injury-prone bust.
He got another crack at the rotation in April of 2009. That spring he added a cutter that was supposed to help him facing Lefty batters. But the results were again disappointing and a pattern was emerging with Phil. He’d come out in the 1st inning like a ball of fire, blowing away hitters and challenging them with heat. Then he’d give up a few hits, start appearing tentative on the mound and it invariably would lead to a big inning. It all seemed to come down to confidence with Hughes, and you wondered when or if he would ever find it as a big league pitcher.
Then, he seemed to turn a corner last year working out of the bullpen. Working in short stints he attacked hitters relentlessly, sticking with his two best pitches and adding a few ticks to his velocity. Instead of working at 89-92 with the fastball as a starter, he was now throwing the ball 95-97 as a reliever. He posted a sparkling 1.40 ERA as a reliever, striking out 65 men in 51.1 IP and cut his 1.50 WHIP as a starter almost in half to 0.85. Finally, Yankee fans saw what so many scouts were so excited about back in 2007.
But the Yanks always viewed Phil as a starting pitcher, and the question remained whether Phil could carry the success he had as a reliever to the rotation. On the heels of his impressive performance last week against the Angels, Phil followed that up by dominating a young and inexperienced Oakland A’s team last night. Challenging them to hit a fastball that he painted the corners with all night long, he would then mix in the cutter and curve for that final swing and miss. Hitter after hitter simply looked over matched facing Phil, as he retired 18 batters in a row and struck out 10 for the evening. He pitched a no-hitter into the 8th, until Eric Chavez lined a first pitch fastball that ricocheted off Hughes’ left arm. Phil turned and turned on the mound, but couldn’t find the ball, which lay about 10 feet in front of him. By the time he recovered, Chavez had already reached 1st, ending the no-hit bid.
But a no-hitter would have been icing on the cake. One misplayed ball doesn’t detract from the phenomenal display Hughes put on last night. After the letdown, manager Joe Girardi interestingly left Phil in the game since he was working so efficiently. Instead of letting down after the no-hit bid failed, Phil responded by striking out the next batter in Kevin Kouzmanoff. That may have impressed me even more than the rest of his performance, which was brilliant. That tells me that the young man with a glass jaw has learned how to hang in there. Last night, Mr Hughes announced to the Baseball world that he has arrived, and the Yankee rotation may have just gone from simply outstanding to being scary good.