Phil Hughes hits 95 in first rehab start

NEW YORK -- The winning lotto number for the New York Yankees on Sunday was 95.

As in miles per hour.

That's how fast starter Phil Hughes threw his highly-scrutinized fastball in his first rehab start.

The 24-year-old righty threw 61 pitches, 41 for strikes in a 4 1/3-inning start for the Staten Island Yankees. He struck out seven Cyclones -- four on crippling breaking balls -- and walked one. He gave up three hits overall. The third was a solo homer over the left field wall at MCU Park on his last pitch thrown.

"The main thing right now is that my arm feels good and right now it does," Hughes said. "I'm overall happy with the way things went."

The former first-round pick threw his fastball as hard as 95 mph and as slow as 87 mph, according to a radar gun reading behind home plate. He sported a breaking ball in the 72-75 mph range, which consistently fooled the Class-A hitters he faced. But Hughes' velocity tailed off toward the end of his outing. In the fourth and fifth innings his fastball hit as high as 92 but was more consistently at 89 mph.

"It felt like it was coming out good. That's basically normal for me so I'm encouraged with that," Hughes said. "I just have to make sure these next couple outings, when I'm going deeper in games that I can maintain that all the way through."

Hughes' next rehab start is tentatively scheduled for Friday. He will pitch for Double-A Trenton. In between, he will work out with Staten Island and -- possibly -- rejoin the Yankees for a workout. The plan is for Hughes to likely make between three and five more rehab starts, barring any setbacks. The Yankees hope to have Hughes back around the All-Star break.

On Sunday, Hughes allowed hits to the first two batters he faced but retired 11 straight before allowing the homer to catcher Nelfi Zapata.

In the big picture, Hughes made a big step towards coming back to the Bronx with the same stuff that made him an All-Star in 2010.

Hughes was placed on the disabled list with an inflamed shoulder on April 15 after struggling with his velocity in his first three starts of the season. He went 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA in those three starts.

It was clear that velocity was an issue: Hughes was throwing the pitch at an average of 89.3 mph this season, according to FanGraphs.com. His average fastball was 92.6 mph in 2010 and 93.8 in 2009, according to the website.

The Yankees were initially unsure of what was ailing Hughes. At first, they hoped the 24-year-old righty would be able to regain velocity through exercise and long-toss drills. When that didn't work, they sent Hughes to St. Louis to see a circulation specialist. Test results showed that he had no circulation issues.

Hughes said Sunday that there was no definitive diagnosis to pin on the injury. But that matters little to him, as long as he's on the mound.

"I've kind of just let it go," he said. "All I know is I feel good know so it's easier to kind of deal with that. If I had come back and still wasn't feeling like myself and was struggling and stuff then it'd be a lot harder to sleep at night. But I feel good."

He worked in Tampa throwing off the mound in extended spring training, in advance of Sunday's start.

It was clear early on that Hughes had his heater back against the Cyclones.

Hughes opened the game by allowing two singles but bounced back quickly by striking out the next two Brooklyn batters. He walked the fifth batter but struck out the sixth on a nasty slider.

After a 25-pitch first inning, he tossed back-to-back eight-pitch frames. He wrapped up his afternoon with a 15-pitch fourth inning and five pitches in the fifth.

Thus far, general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have found adequate fill-ins for Hughes in the rotation. Thirty-eight-year-old veteran Bartolo Colon initially took Hughes' spot, going 5-2 in 10 starts for the Yankees. But Colon went on the disabled list with a hamstring injury suffered on June 11, which forced the Yankees to turn to journeyman Brian Gordon for last Thursday's start. Gordon performed well, but it is unclear if he is a long-term answer.

So Hughes' health -- and how he does in his next handful of minor league rehab starts -- will likely dictate how aggressive Cashman is in the trade market for starting pitchers.

Hughes' sole focus, however, is getting back on the mound to turn around what -- to this point -- has been a lost season.

"It's been tough. I came into spring training and I was hopeful of doing what I did last year, if not more. I think the team felt the same way," Hughes said. ".... And I came out and wasn't myself and it's really disappointing. But I'm hoping that I can get back and at least make something of this year and not count it all as a loss."

Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.