(Courtesy of The AP)
Whether you put any weight into the numbers or not, Phil Hughes certainly looked like a good pitcher in Spring Training, the type of pitcher Yankee fans have been waiting to see for years now. All the pieces of his game that have been missing at times and present at others- the velocity, the control, the command, the health, the changeup- were all starting to come together at the same time and it appeared that Hughes was poised to get back on the track he was on in the first half of 2010. Since the games have started to count, however, it's been back to business as usual with Hughes, and that's not a good thing.
Hughes failed to make it out of the 5th inning in his first start of the season against Tampa Bay, and didn't make it out of the 4th inning in today's game against the Angels, giving up 6 earned runs and a couple of HRs. Joe definitely saw something he didn't like in Phil's game early on today, because he had David Phelps up very quickly in the 3rd inning, and it could have been any number of things that justified that decision. In what has become all too familiar "typical Phil" fashion, Hughes struggled to locate his fastball all day, had his offspeed stuff sitting up in the zone for Angel hitters to tee off on (particularly his curveball, which wasn't fooling anybody today), and couldn't finish anybody off with 2 strikes, allowing guys to come back from 0-2 or 1-2 counts to get on base on multiple occasions. If anything was going to get the "what to do with Phil Hughes?" talk stirred up in a hurry amongst the NY media and Yankee fans, today's outing was it.
And the strangest part about these 2 starts for Hughes has been that from a stuff standpoint he hasn't been terrible. He got a lot of swings and misses in the outing against Tampa and despite all the hits and runs on the scoreboard in his 3.1 innings of work today, he did rack up 6 strikeouts. His fastball velocity being back has given Hughes the ability to challenge guys again and set up his offspeed stuff for out pitches, and in some at-bats he has done that well. It's what he's not doing in the other at-bats that's getting him in trouble, and unfortunately it's the same things he's always struggled with and the same things that have always made him a bit of an enigma during his time in pinstripes.
The good news is that it's still very early in the season. 2 starts shouldn't define what Hughes' entire season will be, and they likely won't. The bad news is that all the goodwill and positive momentum that Hughes built heading into the season with his strong spring camp has been washed away and he's back to fighting the same uphill battle he has for the overwhelming majority of his Yankee career. He's got all the pieces of his game back on the table this season; sooner or later he needs to figure out how to put them all together to make himself an effective pitcher. For the sake of his rotation spot, Phil might want to do that sooner.