Hughes 'close' despite struggles
Righty fine-tuning pitches in final weeks of Spring Training
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Phil Hughes has never hung around a big league camp this long, but those who know his career path would recognize this as the point when the spring results always get a little wobbly.
Hughes' latest installment of Grapefruit League campaign shakiness came with some assistance. The first night game played in the history of McKechnie Field, Wednesday's 12-9 Yankees win, will be remembered more for high winds that convinced the 20 flagpoles beyond center field to whip decidedly left.
"For the most part, I seem to get roughed up every Spring Training," said Hughes, who surrendered three home runs in his first two innings. "Even when I'd go down to the Minor League side, it seemed like I'd always get hit hard. I guess it's pretty normal.
"I'd like it not to be that way, but it seems like it's just something that happens. It's not dumb luck or anything. It's because I'm leaving some balls over the plate."
The blasts came early and often, all leaving the yard in Hughes' first time around the Pittsburgh order. Leadoff batter Nate McLouth slugged a 3-1 pitch over the wall in the first inning, while Ryan Doumit and Chris Gomez each contributed a solo blast in the second.
Hughes finished allowing seven runs (six earned) in four innings, but Yankees manager Joe Girardi thought at least the first two homers were slightly suspect.
"He had tough conditions to pitch in," Girardi said. "Some of the balls on our side and their side are normally outs. It's one of those nights in Florida, and from what I've heard, Bradenton. It blows out a lot here."
The Yankees had made their bets long before Hughes set foot on the mound in Bradenton -- something of a time warp for him, he said, because the Pirates' Class A affiliate in Hickory, N.C., uses a near-identical field layout, down to the walls of the newly constructed visitors' clubhouse down the left-field line.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Yankees called Joba Chamberlain into Girardi's office at Legends Field and told the phenom setup man that he would be returning to that role to open the '08 season.
Not that it affected Hughes much -- unlike last spring, when he was a long shot to make the club and wasn't summoned until late April, Hughes has been considered an airtight lock to be in New York's starting rotation if healthy.
That has allowed Hughes to focus on bettering himself this spring instead of trying to impress in the hopes of making a team. His fifth appearance and fourth start showed some improvements over as four-run, nine-hit effort against Cincinnati five days prior, with Hughes' curveball a bit crisper and his fastball gaining better command as the night went on.
That encouraged Girardi to disregard the long balls as noise on a night when the Yankees hit three as well. Jorge Posada clubbed one, but two of New York's deepest drives were hit by Nick Green and Chad Moeller, not exactly among baseball's greatest perennial power threats, high and far over the left-field wall.
"I look at the first home run and the second home run [off Hughes], and I'm not sure they're home runs on a normal evening," Girardi said. "We had a couple, too."
Hughes had some difficulty absorbing that fact in the early going. As pitching coach Dave Eiland later told him on the bench, Hughes had started to attack himself on the mound, overstriding and overthrowing a little bit.
"I got frustrated, and a couple of those balls left the yard," Hughes said. "I was trying to put a little extra on and got in more trouble."
It is a flaw that Hughes needs to work on, but that's what Spring Training is for. He has two starts remaining before the regular season begins, with 77 more pitches under his belt on Wednesday.
If Hughes' history tells anything at all, it's that he's usually more ready when the bell rings and March becomes April.
"I feel like I'm close," Hughes said. "My velocity is right where I need it to be, and my breaking ball has been good. It's just cleaning up a couple of little things and making sure I really finish my fastball to get it where I want it. I felt pretty good out there."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.