CHICAGO -- There's one man too many in the New York Yankees pitching rotation, and by Thursday night, we might know who that man is.
Phil Hughes, who has struggled since coming off the disabled list on July 5, will pitch Tuesday night against the White Sox, and two days later, Ivan Nova, sent down to Triple-A to make room for Hughes' return despite his 8-4 record, will pitch in Thursday's series finale.
And eventually, one of them will become a regular part of the rotation. The other will probably wind up in the bullpen.
"Competition's a good thing,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "It brings out the best in people.''
And clearly, Hughes and Nova are in a head-to-head competition to see which one remains a starting pitcher.
"I don't really think about losing my job, but there's pressure to pitch well every five days no matter what the circumstances are,'' said Hughes, who is 1-2 with a 5.49 ERA since returning from nearly three months on the DL with what was officially termed "right shoulder inflammation," and in practice resulted in a sharp drop in velocity. Overall, he is 1-3 with an 8.24 ERA. Last year, he went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA and supplanted A.J. Burnett as the team's No. 2 starter.
"I just go out there and do the best I can on the day I'm supposed to start, and that's really the extent of it," Hughes said. "Not much I can do beyond that."
Nova was originally supposed to have been recalled for a spot start in the second game of Saturday's day-night doubleheader with the Orioles, necessitated by an early-season rainout. But after allowing just two runs in seven innings three days after Hughes allowed two runs, but nine hits, in six innings to the Mariners, Nova was given another start this week.
Girardi tried to couch it as an opportunity to give Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, the oldest pitchers in his rotation, an extra day's rest, but acknowledged that the Yankees' six-man rotation was likely to be a temporary arrangement.
"We don't think an extra day for Bartolo and Freddy is such a bad thing at this point,'' the manager said. "But you're trying to keep your guys on their normal rest days and their normal routines.''
Aside from disrupting routines, a six-man rotation would mean fewer starts for staff ace CC Sabathia, probably the main reason why the Yankees are likely to go back to a five-man rotation as soon as possible.
"I'm not doing this to put any pressure on anyone or saying this start is the start you need to make," Girardi said. "But we'll have to make some decisions after we get through the rotation this week."
That means either Hughes or Nova will likely go to the bullpen, and in that case, Girardi indicated that would be Hughes, who made 44 relief appearances in 2009.
"Well, Hughsie obviously has more experience down there than Nova does," Girardi said. "Does that mean Nova could or could not do it? I'm not sure. He's done it once or twice, maybe, but it's not what he's used to doing."
Hughes acknowledged a move to the bullpen would be "disappointing for sure, but I want to help this team every way I can. But at this time, It's not something I'm thinking about.''
"It's too early to necessarily give up on Hughes and say he's not going to be an effective starter after what he did last year,'' Girardi said. "I'm not going to rule anything out, but obviously we have to make a decision."
That decision could come as early as Thursday night.
Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.