The Ballad of Phil Hughes

Rick Osentoski – US Presswire

It isn’t easy being the New York Yankees #1 prospect. Just ask Nick Johnson, Dioner Navarro, Jose Conteras, Drew Henson or Eric Duncan. In fact, it isn’t easy being any teams #1 prospect. Forget about being stuck underneath an unforgiving microscope with hundreds of scouts and media members deconstructing every little thing you do, you also have fan’s hopes, dreams, and expectations to deal with. And those are the most unforgiving of all.

Now imagine being that guy for almost a decade. Case in point, Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes.

Back on April 26, 2007, I remember exactly where I was when Hughes made his major league debut – at Woagie’s Bar in the West Village with my then girlfriend-now wife, delaying a social engagement so I could see the Second Coming stagger opposing hitters with his biting fastball and devastating curveball.  I had to watch because his debut was an event for Yankees fans–he was the guy who would force the Yankees brass into once again believing in the power of the farm system. No more Carl Pavano’s or Jaret Wright’s or Kevin Brown’s or Randy Johnson’s – Phil Hughes would prove that the Yankees could still develop starting pitching and stop relying on the free agent market or trades for aging disgruntled stars.

Nothing but praise had surrounded Hughes since the Yankees drafted him in the first round out of high school in 2004. And considering some of the gems who had made starts for the Yankees so early in the 2007 season (Chase Wright, Kei Igawa, Jeff Karstens, and Darrell Rasner), it’s easy to see why most fans were beyond gassed for the next great Yankees pitcher to step into the rotation.

Admittedly, it’s easy to get carried away with any prospect, but at the time, I truly thought there wasn’t a lot of delusional hype surrounding Hughes. He was a blue chip prospect who many scouts believed would turn into a top of the rotation starter. Hughes had two legitimate plus-pitches and supposedly the thick skin pitchers need to develop appropriately. Even Yankees players were excited–during Spring Training, Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi said, “He looks like a young Rocket,” referencing a likeness in pitching style to all-time great Roger Clemens. Success would simply be a byproduct of all these factors.

On that April night against Toronto, Hughes wasn’t great, but for a kid a month away from his 21st birthday, he wasn’t bad either (4.1 IP, 4 ER, 5 K’s). But it was his next start that sent fans into a different stratosphere of excitement. Five days after his debut, Hughes was given the ball for a start against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. And through 6.1 innings, Hughes was flat-out unhittable. Literally. Through 6.2 innings, he struck out six and walked three without allowing a hit. But then came the hamstring pull, and the never-ending succession of setbacks that kept him on the DL for over three months.

Yankees fans wouldn’t see Hughes again until August. Down the stretch, he made 11 more starts, pitched to a 4.65 ERA, and helped the Yankees secure the Wild Card spot for the playoffs. In the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, he made two appearances, memorably pitching well  in relief of an injured Roger Clemens during Game 3, securing the win and fending off the sweep. When all was said and done, Hughes seemed ripe for a spot in the Yankees rotation come the 2008 season.

But we all know how that story goes…

Fast forward to this 2012. Overall, Hughes had a good campaign–he pitched exactly how the Yankees needed him to pitch – a fourth starter on a team with three pitchers who, when healthy, were better than he was. Which isn’t a bad thing, considering after a rough April, his numbers the rest of the way were pretty damn good (15-10, 175.1 IP, 3.90 ERA, 148 K’s and 40 BB’s). And although he was extremely susceptible to the long ball – 35 home runs allowed in 2012, second in the majors – it’s fair to say that behind Hiroki Kuroda, Hughes was the second-best Yankees starter from May 1st until the season’s end.

So tonight, Phil Hughes will make the start against the Detroit Tigers in Game 3 of the ALCS. He’s made two starts against Detroit this season – one great (CG, 1 ER, 8 K’s) and one not so great 4.1 IP, 4 ER), so it will be interesting to see how he attacks Detroit’s lineup tonight. More importantly, it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the significance of tonight’s game. Without question, it’s a do-or-die situation for the reeling Yankees, and considering only one team in the history of baseball has come back from a 3-0 deficit in a championship series (Who was that team again? My brain blacked it out), the Yankees need a win tonight in the worse way.

Tonight, Hughes needs to dig deep for the good stuff, especially considering the Tigers have their Ace Justin Verlander on the hill. He needs to be the guy who minimizes damage by throwing strikes and mixing in his changeup, not the guy who spends his night arching his neck to see all of the balls landing in the right field seats.

As a fan, I accept that Hughes will never become the rotation savior the team once desperately needed him to be. But that doesn’t mean he’s a bust either. Hughes is more than capable of keeping the Yankees in a big game, if only out of sheer competitiveness and a good mixture of fastballs and off-speed stuff. As long as Hughes remembers to use his whole arsenal, even if he gets knocked off course at some point during the game, expect him to bounce back and continue coming after hitters, just like he’s done his whole career.

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