(Be this guy tonight, Phil.)
It's been a rocky start for Phil Hughes in 2012, even rockier when you consider how well he pitched in Spring Training. But his most recent start last Thursday was a step in the right direction. Despite giving up some runs on 2-out hits (aided by an Eduardo Nunez error) and a HR on a poorly-located pitch, Hughes' overall performance was better than in his first 2 starts. He was more efficient than he had been, and despite his inability to consistently get ahead in the count (only 9/25 1st-pitch strikes) he managed to throw strikes and work deeper into the game than one would expect after the work he had to put in in the top of the 1st. His fastball velocity continued to be good, his command of the pitch was improved, and his curveball was the best its looked to date.
The question is how Hughes will follow up that outing tonight against a much more dangerous offensive team. We've seen CC and Kuroda both stymie the Ranger lineup through the first 2 games of this series, but they're pitchers that can be expected to do that more so than Hughes because of their more well-rounded repertoire and better command. Hughes, after showing some improvement with his changeup in camp, has really not used it much in his early outings, and his curveball has still not been good enough to qualify as "good." He needs to utilize those pitches better and throw them for strikes tonight to keep the Texas lineup from murdering his fastball. Having seen what he's done with both pitches so far, the question has to be asked whether or not he can do it.
The combination of Hughes' improved 3rd outing and Freddy's BP session on Saturday have probably saved Hughes from being the primary target for rotation replacement for the time being. He can go a long way towards solidifying his spot for the near future with a good outing against a good hitting team tonight. In order to do so, though, he needs to build on his finish to his last outing and try to be a more complete pitcher.