NEW YORK -- Sunday began for the New York Yankees as Day 4 of Life without Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia, and Phil Hughes didn't begin the game as if he was going to pick up anywhere close to where fellow Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda left off with the 11-strikeout gem he hung up Saturday.
Hughes was dealing with the distraction of Old-Timer's Day. There was the withering 95-degree midday heat. There was the challenge of facing the first-place Chicago White Sox's batting order, which swings for the fences almost as much as the Yankees do. And as Hughes admitted later, "I was too amped up."
But after a shaky, two-run first inning in which every ball the White Sox connected with was loud -- even their outs -- Hughes righted himself with an eight-inning, eight-strikeout performance that not only lifted the Yanks to a 4-2 win, but continued a trend that should send the Yanks winging into their last road trip before the All-Star Game thinking about more than merely surviving this next seven-game stretch against the Tampa Bay Rays, and then the Boston Red Sox.
Even with the pitchers they're suddenly missing, the Yanks still have a chance to play the heavy now. They have the opportunity to hit the road and make a statement live and in person to their AL East rivals.
And if the Yankees are smart, they'll lunge into this week as a golden opportunity to open a little more forbidding distance on the Rays and the Red Sox while they have a chance -- before the Rays get Evan Longoria back, before the surging Red Sox see Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford finally return from the rehab assignments they just started, and before any gets any hope that the scorching June surge that carried the Yanks to the top of the division has been undercut by the big question they've been forced now to lug into July:
How will they survive without Sabathia until after the break and without Pettitte until September?
The Yanks began play Sunday with a five-game division lead. But if they roll into Tampa and Boston and somehow win four of seven this week, even five of seven, they'll be in great shape.
"Why not seven of seven?" Hughes interjected, with a smile. "That'll be our goal. And we'll see how it works out. When you're going along in the season, it's hard to think about the big picture like that. And we know the finish line is a long way away."
But this week is an opportunity, is it not?
"Definitely," Hughes nodded. "Definitely."
At the very least, the short-term picture looks a whole lot better for the Yanks than it did Wednesday, when Sabathia (groin strain) and Pettitte (broken fibula) went out on the same day, and Yanks general manager Brian Cashman joked about having to stave off the "ambulance chasers" from other teams looking to peddle one of their starting pitchers to him, thinking he was desperate.
But Cashman said he had confidence in what the Yanks already had, and the early returns, anyway, have been terrific. Other than rookie Adam Warren, who was recalled for a spot start and sent down before his shelling in Friday's 14-7 loss barely had time to sink in, the rest of the Yankees starters have thrown out this: The Yanks got a shutdown emergency relief performance by new No. 4 starter Freddy Garcia in the game in which Petttite was hurt; Ivan Nova gave the Yanks a shutdown outing on Thursday that the Yanks seemed about to win until the bullpen ruined it in the ninth; then Kuroda tossed his three-hitter Saturday, and Hughes won his sixth game in his past eight decisions by retiring 16 of the last 17 White Sox hitters he faced.
After coughing up those two first inning runs, Hughes scattered five hits and shut out the White Sox the rest of the way. He was admittedly tiring when Yankees manager Joe Girardi sent him back out for the eighth in the heat to face the heart of the White Sox order, and Hughes also knew he was losing a little off his fastball.
But then, both he and Girardi were heartened by what happened next.
Girardi later admitted he was purposely testing Hughes by declining to go to his bullpen in that spot. He said he thought Hughes was on a roll and could bulldog his way through one last inning, but, more than that, Girardi said, "I wanted to see it, you know?" And Hughes' tenacity impressed him, all right -- never more than when he fell behind White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko on a 2-1 count.
Neither choice was great: Risk walking Konerko and bringing the tying run to the plate, or challenging an All-Star slugger with 14 home runs Hughes said he briefly thought about throwing Konerko an off-speed pitch but ultimately challenged him with a fastball instead.
"I just stayed aggressive, I basically said, 'Here it is, hit it' and he was definitely looking for it," Hughes said. "And he popped it up."
Hughes admitted it's the sort of thing that builds confidence. He characterized it as the kind of satisfying little victory over himself and not just the guy in the batter's box that confirms his continuing maturation as a pitcher. "I've been here for a little while now," Hughes said, "and I've been able to learn some things."
Girardi sees the growth in Hughes too.
Often, the hardest leap for a young pitcher like Hughes to make is to be able to adjust as the game is happening, not just with the benefit of hindsight between starts. Girardi called Hughes' ability to do that Sunday "outstanding."
Hughes, who improved to 9-6 overall, was harder on himself than Girardi. He joked he knew he'd shaken his early jitters and settled in "once I was actually hitting the [catcher's] glove instead of missing by a couple feet."
Hughes admitted that it helped that the Yanks' offense looked like it usually looked behind him. They got two home runs, one from Eric Chavez and one from red-hot Robinson Cano. And still, the bigger news was Hughes, after a shaky 1-4 start this season, continued to look like a reliable part of a Yankees' pitching rotation that seems determined to remain a team strength even without Pettitte until September, and Sabathia for these next 10 days.
Tampa and Boston have to be noticing all of that from afar.
Now? All of a sudden, what looked like a good time to catch the Yankees might not be so good after all. They still begin this week looking like they can kick sand in the face of the rest of the AL East, maybe even open up a bigger lead.
"I was just trying to keep it rolling," Hughes said.