CLEVELAND -- The handful of times that Phil Hughes glanced up to check out his own radar gun readings on Wednesday, he felt a little bit more like himself, which the Yankees certainly would take as a positive.
Hughes took his five innings of two-run ball as a promising step in the right direction, but he couldn't keep pace with Justin Masterson, who fired eight stifling frames as the Indians defeated the Yankees, 5-3, at Progressive Field.
"I would have liked to have been a little sharper early and get in somewhat of a groove, but I gave up a couple runs and then had to fight to keep it where it was," Hughes said. "And Masterson was really good, so that's the way it goes."
The Yankees managed just three hits -- one of them an eighth-inning double by Derek Jeter, career hit No. 2,997 -- off the hard-throwing Masterson, who walked two and struck out six for his seventh win of the year.
"To be quite honest with you, it seems like his ball moves as much as anyone we've seen," said Jeter, who had been expected to rest on Wednesday but talked his way into the starting lineup. "He's throwing 95, 96 [mph] all night, with a lot of movement. We didn't get many hits off him. He pitched outstanding."
New York dropped two of three in Cleveland, completing its six-game road trip with an even record and suffering its first series defeat since being swept by the Red Sox in early June at Yankee Stadium.
Then again, just the fact that Hughes was back on a big league mound and seemingly healthy could have been chalked up as something of a victory in itself.
An 18-game winner and All-Star last season, Hughes was a shadow of himself through three April starts. He disappeared to the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation and a mysterious drop in velocity that sent him to a St. Louis-based specialist at one point.
Hughes never quite got all of the answers that he had hoped for, except an assurance that rest would help recharge his batteries, and the early results thus far have convinced Hughes that he can begin a new chapter.
"If I had this location earlier in the year, it would be a lot different story, I think," Hughes said. "It's nice to go out there and actually have stuff that you feel like you can compete with."
The start wasn't completely encouraging. Touching 93 mph in his first inning, Hughes saw his fastball tick down from there, and he generated no swings and misses with his heater.
"I think that's because he was up a lot," manager Joe Girardi said. "When it's up, it's flat; when it's flat, it's easy to keep your bat on the same plane. He's got to get a better downhill plane the next time he goes out."
But two first-inning runs accounted for the only damage against Hughes, who threw 87 pitches, walking two and striking out two. His ERA dropped from 13.94 to 10.57 with the outing.
"People are going to say it's a good outing, but we know that he can be better," Girardi said.
Cleveland struck early against Hughes, as Travis Hafner stroked an RBI single, knocking in Michael Brantley, and Asdrubal Cabrera moved up on a wild pitch, scoring as catcher Russell Martin fired errantly into left field.
"I was rushing a little bit," Hughes said. "I felt like my mechanics in my last [Minor League rehab] outing were pretty good. I was staying over the rubber well. Today, I felt like I was leaking out a little bit, and my arm was dragging, but that could have been just from a little extra adrenaline and wanting to go too fast."
From there, Hughes was able to blank the Tribe, getting out of a hairy bases-loaded situation in the fifth inning after two hit-by-pitches and a walk, inducing Lonnie Chisenhall to line out to left field.
After hitting Hafner with a pitch to load the bases, Boone Logan wriggled out of a jam in the sixth with help from Alex Rodriguez, who made a diving stop on a bases-loaded Carlos Santana grounder to his left and fired to first base for the out.
But Logan wasn't so lucky in the seventh, grooving a pitch to Chisenhall that landed in the right-center-field seats for the third baseman's first Major League home run. The Indians tacked on two runs in the ninth off Sergio Mitre.
"He had a hard time throwing his fastball for strikes," Girardi said of Mitre.
Two sharp plays by Cabrera at shortstop doused an eighth-inning Yankees rally, and with Masterson out of the game, New York flickered to life with three ninth-inning runs charged to Vinnie Pestano before Chris Perez came on for his 21st save in 22 chances.
Hughes said that since there was an "L" tagged next to his name in the box score, he couldn't be pleased, but on some level, it felt good just to be on that mound.
"At the end of the day, I'm happy to be back here again," Hughes said. "The outcome didn't go the way I would have liked or anyone would have liked, but it's still a positive step just to be in this situation."