Phil Hughes threw five strong innings on Wednesday afternoon against the Rays in Port Charlotte, and continued to look like he belongs among the five members of the Yankees' starting rotation in 2012, after a sub-par, injury-plagued 2011.
"Night and day," said manager Joe Girardi, when asked to compare Hughes from last year to this year. "He’s a different guy."
The 25-year-old righty gave up two runs on three hits -- the two runs coming on one pitch to Matt Joyce in the second inning, which Joyce crushed over the wall in straightaway center field.
Other than that, Hughes gave up just a pair of singles, with three strikeouts and one walk. He pitched 1-2-3 innings in the first, third and fifth, capping his outing off by getting Sean Rodriguez to look at strike three.
"He made a mistake with a cutter," said Girardi. "He settled down nicely, threw a lot of quality pitches, a lot of quality changeups."
Hughes was also talking about his changeup after the game. He said he threw about 15 of them, and got two of his three K's with the pitch. "I really hadn’t gotten the chance to throw as many changeups as I want. Seems like a lot of quick swings this spring so far, and you don’t necessarily get to have those drawn-out counts," Hughes said. "I seemed to have a few of those today, where I could really incorporate my changeup.
"If I really think about the one thing that I took a step forward with today, it would probably be the changeup."
Hughes has now thrown 13 1/3 innings this spring, giving up three earned runs on 11 hits, with eight strikeouts and two walks. This follows a season in which he began the season with a dead arm, made just 14 starts, and went 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA.
"I feel a lot better," said Hughes. "It’s easier to sleep at night compared to last year, hearing the velocity issues, and knowing something’s not right. Right now I just feel like I can go out and pitch and not worry about all that stuff."
"It looks like it’s easier for him," said Russell Martin, who caught Hughes for the first time this spring on Wednesday. "He’s not forcing the ball out there, it’s just nice and easy, just simple mechanics, fluid, and that shows that he came in camp in good shape this year."
"It was a long hard season for him," said Girardi, "and sometimes those can be the seasons where we learn the most."
With Andy Pettitte back in the fold, the Yankees now have seven starters competing for five spots in the starting rotation.
But if Hughes continues pitching this way the final two weeks of spring training, it will be very difficult for Girardi to leave him out. Don't forget, Hughes won 18 games back in 2010.
"I like the way our guys have thrown the ball," Girardi said. "Some of the numbers aren’t great, but I’ve been pleased with the way our starters have went about their business and competed for this. This is gonna be a difficult decision."
Hughes, for one, isn't worried about his job status. "I just try to go out every five days and pitch as well as I can," said Hughes. "That’s really it -- I don’t try to think too much into it, I have no control over that.
"Just try to get my work in, and do the things that [pitching coach] Larry [Rothschild] asks me to do, and try to get better every day, and go out and throw up as many zeros as I can."