Time is now for Phil Hughes

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The weight is down and the velocity is up. So what if he took the L in the Yankees' 7-4 loss to the Pirates Tuesday afternoon? For Phil Hughes, spring training hasn't been this good in a long time.

"I certainly feel better than last spring,'' he said after a 1 1/3-inning stint in which he threw 38 pitches, allowed four hits and two runs (one earned) and hit 93 consistently on the radar gun.

Joe Girardi said Hughes looked "all right,'' and that's about as far as the manager would go, but all spring long, Girardi has made it clear that all right is simply not good enough for this pitcher.

He and the Yankees expect more from Hughes, and they will either get it or Hughes will get a seat in the bullpen, or maybe even someone else's clubhouse.

Because if there is one thing to take away from Hughes' first outing of the spring, it is that Girardi, normally fiercely protective of his players, has no trouble exposing Hughes to the elements.

The day started with Girardi openly acknowledging he had doubts about Hughes' work ethic last spring, when he showed up for spring training overweight and seemingly complacent after an 18-win season in 2010.

"The one thing we expect from our players is that you come in tip-top shape if you've been here before,'' Girardi said. "We expect that. If you want to stay and be consistent and continue to get better, there has to be a strong work ethic because someone's waiting to take your job.''

Asked point blank if he was questioning Hughes' work ethic, Girardi said, "There's a concern. The thing is, I'd seen him work very hard before. But yeah, it makes you question where their mindset is. Where's their mindset?''

It was a sharp contrast from 24 hours earlier, when Girardi cut newcomer Michael Pineda a break for arriving at his first Yankees camp admittedly 10 pounds overweight, or from last year, when he refused to publicly criticize A.J. Burnett for injuring himself, and losing a start, after slamming a clubhouse door in a fit of temper.

But it is obvious he holds Hughes to a higher standard, perhaps because the Yankees have higher hopes for him than they had for Burnett. Also because perhaps Girardi senses that unlike the erratic Burnett, or Pineda, who the manager hardly knows, Hughes' psyche can take a little slapping around without suffering too many bruises.

Asked after the game if his lack of conditioning in 2011 training camp was a sign of complacency, Hughes essentially shrugged. "Sure,'' he said. "I don't care what you label it. That's fine.''

He went on to explain how the ball never felt right coming out of his hand last spring, that his velocity never got to where he needed it to be, and that ultimately, his problem turned out to be a case of shoulder inflammation that cost him months on the disabled list.

But he came back to what he admitted was a soft offseason between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 as the start of his problems.

"Probably throwing as much as I did in 2010 (a career-high 176 1/3 innings), maybe I thought I needed more rest than I really did in that offseason,'' Hughes said. "I just didn't push it as hard as I could have. At the end of the day, that's on me.''

This spring, Hughes said he felt "100 percent fine,'' and he has come to camp lighter, he said, by 20 pounds. "For me personally, last year was a failure and I didn't want that to happen again,'' he said. "Nobody ever sat me down and told me to lose weight. I did my offseason program on my own. It was something I wanted to do. I didn't want any excuses coming into spring.''

Especially since Girardi has said repeatedly that there is a competition for starting spots in this camp, four pitchers competing for three jobs, but in reality, the only competition is between Hughes and Freddy Garcia for the last spot in the rotation.

"I'm in a dogfight right now,'' Hughes said. "And I just gotta go out and pitch well.''

Right now, the competiton is pretty much even because neither Garcia nor Hughes pitched particularly well his first time out. Garcia gave up two runs in two innings on Sunday for an early ERA of 9.00; Since Hughes was charged with just one earned run -- the second scored on Robbie Cano's throwing error on what might have been a double play ball -- his early ERA is 6.75.

But Hughes got hit hard by five of the eight batters he faced, a product, he said, of being up in the zone with his pitches. He was pleased with "how the ball came out of his hand,'' but said he would have to check with pitching coach Larry Rothschild before making a final determination on whether he had a good fastball or not.

Told that scouts behind home plate had clocked him consistently at 93 mph, Hughes smiled. "I did? Really?" he asked. "I'm very pleased with that, especially since I probably didn't hit 90 last spring. So it's a step in the right direction.''

Fastball velocity alone is hardly an indication of pitching effectiveness, but for this particular pitcher, who mysteriously lost his heater last spring and never seemed to get it back, the number was at least an indication that his arm and mechanics are sound.

"It's not necessarily velocity that we're looking for but you want to make sure he's in the range he's supposed to be in,'' Rothschild said. "Now it's a question of getting him to locate his pitches and mix in his secondary pitches as he sees fit.''

But there is, of course, a lot more to it than that. For Hughes to lose out to Garcia could mean that the Yankees' faith in him all these years has been misplaced. It could mean that their decision to hold onto him and trade Ian Kennedy, who came up at the same time, was a mistake. It could mean that their decision to shuttle him between the starting rotation and the bullpen was the wrong one, or that their decision to limit his innings late in the 2010 season sent the wrong message.

At worst, it could mean that if, after nine years in their organization, Phil Hughes is still not the pitcher they expected him to become, perhaps he never will be.

If nothing else, the Yankees' recent treatment of Phil Hughes, more with boxing gloves than kid gloves, is strong evidence that this is one pitcher they refuse to coddle.

They don't just expect him to be more than he is. They need him to be.

"Today was a step in the right direction,'' Girardi said.

But the time has come for Phil Hughes to take more than steps.

It's time to make strides.