TORONTO -- Phil Hughes isn't sure how close he is to being the 18-game winner and budding star he was last season. But after Sunday's start, he at least knows he's a lot better than he was earlier this year, when a dip in velocity and a rise in ERA put him on the disabled list for all of 84 games.
Hughes' outing in a 7-2 win by the Yankees over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre wasn't flashy, and it was hardly outstanding. But it signified major progress, a giant step in the right direction and -- at last -- a victory.
"It's not 18, but it's a start," Hughes said after helping the Yankees earn a four-game split while notching his first win. "It's a good feeling."
Armed with a new curveball grip and a better-aligned delivery, Hughes limited the Blue Jays to just two runs in six innings while delivering his first quality start in his fifth outing of the season.
Hughes retired eight of the last nine hitters he faced and had registered only 80 pitches by the time he finished the bottom of the sixth. But with the sun pouring down on the open-roof ballpark and 10 days separating Hughes' two starts, Joe Girardi decided that was it -- to the right-hander's chagrin.
"He had one more inning at the most," the Yankees' skipper said, "so we just thought with the heat and the long layoff that he had, it was time to get him out of there."
Most of the talk about Hughes all season centered on his velocity drop -- which was described as "dead arm" and may have been caused by the shoulder inflammation with which he officially went on the DL -- but it was a slightly tighter curveball that may be the biggest factor in making Hughes an effective pitcher again.
That was on full display in the series finale.
"I thought I made some improvements with it, giving guys less time to react," Hughes said. "That's what you're aiming for. You want to fool them, but at the same time, you don't want to give them time to re-adjust to a slower breaking ball. It wasn't as big, but I felt like I fooled a couple more guys than I would've with my other one. That was a good thing as well."
Hughes comfortably sat in the 92- to 93-mph range with his four-seam fastball -- one he threw often in the early stages of the game -- and offset that with an upper-80s cutter and a mid-70s curveball.
"There's some life behind the ball," catcher Russell Martin said. "It was jumping out of his hand today."
With the new grip, suggested by pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Hughes was able to throw his curveball from the same arm slot as his fastball and was thus able to fool hitters with it. Because of that, the hook became his secondary pitch, instead of the cutter.
Thirteen of Hughes' 20 first-inning pitches were four-seam fastballs with which he wasn't really generating outs. The 25-year-old right-hander felt he was overthrowing it early, but his fastball command got only better as the game wore on and even generated a fair share of swings and misses.
The curveball -- which Hughes threw 25 times -- hardly wavered.
"I felt like I can probably throw it for a strike a little bit easier," Hughes said. "When in doubt, I went to it, and it was pretty good, for the most part."
Hughes' outing may not have been as dominant as the eight innings of one-run ball CC Sabathia pitched on Saturday, but considering the recent outings of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, it was a good sign from a guy the Yankees will need if they hope to return to the playoffs.
"I think it can make a big difference for our rotation," Girardi said. "It just gives us more depth. You think about what he did for us his first year full-time in our rotation, it was really important for us, and it was one of the reasons we had so much success."
By the time Hughes prematurely exited, the Yankees held a three-run lead thanks in large part to Brett Gardner, who scored three runs, stole two bases -- giving him 12 in a row, which matches a career-high steak -- and finished 3-for-4 to notch his third three-hit game of this four-game series.
"The last couple days, he's gotten on base a lot," said Blue Jays manager John Farrell, whose club was once again without slugger Jose Bautista, nursing a sprained right ankle. "He's created some havoc with his ability to steal bases."
The Yankees were able to pull ahead against opposing starter Carlos Villanueva in the fourth on an RBI double by Russell Martin, a sacrifice fly by Ramiro Pena and a two-run double by Curtis Granderson.
In the last three frames, it was Cory Wade, David Robertson and Boone Logan -- who struck out the side in the ninth -- finishing off the Blue Jays.
Now, with a four-game series against the American League East-rival Rays awaiting on Monday, the Yankees have returned to 18 games over .500 and Hughes has returned to form.
How close is he to the 2010 version?
"I'd say I'm close," Hughes said. "I'm hopefully going to make some more strides, and if I can string together as good an outing as today or even some better ones, I'll be satisfied. But I'm always looking to get better. Maybe even better than last year."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.