It took more than a month, but Phil Hughes finally owns a victory in 2013.
Winless in five starts in April, Hughes began his May by pitching an absolute gem, shutting out the Oakland A’s over eight innings in a 4-2 Yankees triumph on Saturday in the Bronx.
“Just the consistency of his pitches every inning,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, when asked what impressed him most about Hughes’ performance. “When he did get in some long at-bats he kept after ’em, making quality pitch after quality pitch. The eight strong innings, the strikeouts -- he was excellent.”
A fly-ball pitcher, Hughes has been prone to giving up the long ball -- last season, he surrendered 35 of them, the second-most in the major leagues. So when John Jaso, the very first batter of the game, hit a fly ball deep to right, you had to wonder if Hughes was in for another rough day.
New York Yankees
But Ichiro Suzuki made a leaping grab at the wall, and that was the closest the A’s came to scoring off Hughes all afternoon.
He allowed just four hits (three singles and a double), and struck out nine batters, consistently registering 93 miles per hour on the radar gun, even 94 and 95 on occasion.
“He was attacking the zone with his fastball,” said catcher Chris Stewart. “He was getting ahead with it. He was able to use it to put guys away, too. We didn’t throw too many offspeed pitches -- we kind of mixed them in there when we needed to, to get them off balance. But for the most part it was just pounding with his fastball.”
Stewart and Lyle Overbay hit solo homers in the third and fifth innings, respectively, accounting for the Yankees’ first two runs. The Yanks tacked on two more -- on RBI singles in the sixth and seventh by Travis Hafner and Brett Gardner -- which ended up providing the winning margin.
But the real difference was Hughes, who emptied the tank, throwing a season-high 118 pitches -- the second-most he’s thrown in a big league game.
And, truth be told, he had been pitching much better of late, despite the lack of a W to show for it.
After being roughed up in his first two starts of the season, Hughes had posted three solid outings in a row, giving up just two runs each time out, but getting a no-decision each time.
“I don’t really worry about the wins and losses, to be honest,” Hughes said. “I care if we win the game, my team, and the last couple times out we’ve done that so I’ve been satisfied.
“Obviously it’s gratifying to pick up a win, but as long as I keep throwing the ball well I feel like the wins and losses will kind of even out.”
With so many of their top hitters injured, the Yankees knew they’d need to lean even more heavily on their starting pitching this year in order to be successful.
His ERA, which was 10.29 in mid-April, has now plummeted to 3.60.
And don’t forget, Hughes missed a significant chunk of spring training with a back injury, which may have set him back, even though he’s not using it as an excuse.
“I felt like I was ready to go to start the season,” Hughes said. “Obviously things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to, but I made some adjustments, and I feel like I’m getting stronger.”
Hughes will be a free agent after this season, so that could provide a little extra motivation -- even though he says that’s not on his mind right now.
“It’s pretty easy just to go out when the moment hits and you have to take the ball for that start to kind of block everything out and just think about the pitch you have to execute,” Hughes said. “It’s been an easy process.”
But this season didn't start out easy. After lasting just three innings against the Orioles on April 13, Hughes was booed off the mound at Yankee Stadium.
Three weeks later, he heard a similar, yet very different, sound as he left the mound.
The “Huuuuughes” chant is back in the Bronx.
Music to Phil’s ears.