BOSTON -- On first inspection, Bartolo Colon does not inspire much in the way of faith. He is a round mound on the rebound, a pitcher who might be accused of eating Phil Hughes' command and velocity for lunch.
To see a bloated Colon stuffed inside a New York Yankees uniform is to imagine a bloated William Shatner stuffed inside his original Star Trek suit. But as he closes hard on his 38th birthday, Colon is proving to be everything the 24-year-old Hughes is not.
"I'm not done," Colon told his winter ball manager in the Dominican Republic, Tony Peña. "I still have a lot left. I just need an opportunity to pitch."
Peña saw Colon pitch to a 1.93 ERA over seven starts in the D.R., and the Yankees' bench coach saw the same unforgiving stuff again Friday inside Fenway Park, where Hughes woke up the Green Monster and turned the 0-6 Red Sox into the 2004 Red Sox before Colon scared all of New England straight.
He went four and a third out of the pen, allowing two hits (one on a bunt) and two runs (one earned) while striking out five and topping out at 94 mph on the gun. Joe Girardi pulled Colon after 62 pitches, pulled him after he struck out Kevin Youkilis in the seventh, and sure enough the Red Sox started banging around Boone Logan as if he were a left-handed Hughes.
Boston won, 9-6, ending any chance of becoming the first mortal World Series lock to finish 0-162, and the Defcon 1 crisis in the losing clubhouse centered around Hughes, the former phenom whose fastball suddenly comes in at the same speed as Tim Wakefield's knuckleball -- only it doesn't, you know, knuckle.
"Right now I'm kind of lost out there," Hughes conceded. "It's kind of a helpless feeling."
An 18-game winner last year, Hughes is lobbing his way out of a rotation that should have included Colon -- and not Freddy Garcia -- in the first place. Girardi ran a competition in the spring for the fifth spot, and Colon won that competition as clearly as UConn won the national title.
He struck out 17 and walked 1 in 16 innings and finished the spring with an ERA of 2.25, less than half of Garcia's 4.91. Girardi went with Garcia, anyway, because Colon hadn't pitched in the bigs since July of 2009 and because Garcia had given the White Sox 157 serviceable innings in 2010.
The manager explained that Garcia was more likely to remain healthy while negotiating a starter's workload, even though his chosen No. 5 isn't any kid, either (he turns 36 in June).
Yes, Colon his history of elbow problems, and yes, he had only thrown 257 major-league innings since he won the Cy Young Award for the Angels in 2005.
But facts are facts. Girardi asked the veteran pitchers to square off, and the manager rewarded the guy who finished second in a two-man fight.
So now Colon is charged to clean up each and every Hughes mess. The first time around, against Detroit, Colon got knocked around a bit before striking out five Tigers in four innings.
Friday, after Hughes lived and died in the high 80s, Colon consistently delivered his heat above 90 mph. "Bartolo was just really locating his fastball well on both sides of the plate," said his catcher, Russell Martin.
"His first two or three innings, I think we threw one off-speed pitch. He's just got a really nasty comeback two-seamer that he can throw in on lefties, and they really don't know what to do with it. It they hit it, it's going to be foul."
Colon retired the first seven batters he faced, striking out three of them, including Dustin Pedroia. Despite carrying the build of a washed-up bouncer, a build that would've made David Wells look supermodel thin, Colon projected a vibe of aggression, athleticism and confidence.
He threw the baseball with a disdain for the opponent, and Hughes most certainly did not.
"Bart's coming right at you," Girardi said. "That's what he does."
So, the manager was asked, how much more of this does Colon have to do to force his way into the starting five?
"It's way too early," Girardi said. "Phil Hughes is a guy who won 18 games last year for us. I'm not thinking about that. Those are things you talk about in the future. That's a great problem to have."
Again, this isn't a call for Hughes' rotational head, not yet anyway. This is a reminder that Colon was arguably the Yankees' best pitcher in the spring, and a candidate who deserved to be on Girardi's staff in Garcia's place.
"This is how he threw for me in the winter," said Peña, who wanted no part of any Colon-to-the-rotation debate. "He threw strikes, hit 94 with his velocity, and showed a good changeup. He's definitely capable of being a starter, but it's not for me to say anything like that right now."
Colon? Using Peña as his interpreter, the man with 153 victories in his hip pocket said he would simply take the ball whenever the manager was willing to give it to him.
"I'm going to work according to where [Girardi] is going to use me," Colon said. "It doesn't matter to me."
Colon said that he warmed up quicker Friday than he had in the Detroit game, and that he felt stronger as he went deeper into the game. But Girardi took him out, and the Fenway fireworks exploded again on cue.
Colon believes he's throwing the ball about as well as he threw it in his prime. "I feel that way," he said, "but I also feel like a rookie."
The season is young, and so is the bold -- if bloated -- pitcher who turns 38 next month. Chances are, the Yankees won't keep this Bartolo Colon locked in the pen for very long.