'Three Amigos' handling pressure
Young Hughes, Kennedy, Chamberlain counted on in Bronx
NEW YORK -- Around this time last year, Phil Hughes was sitting in the newly-remodeled clubhouse of the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, his club's opener postponed by snow. Ian Kennedy was in the rotation at Class A Tampa, and Joba Chamberlain was across the street, mending from injury.
All three are now counted on as integral cogs of the big league club. Hughes and Kennedy will be taking their second turns around the rotation as the Yankees travel to Kansas City this week, and Chamberlain will be right there behind them, ready to hand the ball off again in a save situation.
"What a difference a year makes," Chamberlain said. "It's been great. It's been fun. It feels like forever ago, but it wasn't that long ago. Dreams do come true and everything you've worked for is at your fingertips, but you can't be satisfied."
Their slumbering offense considered a temporary issue, the Yankees' biggest questions -- in a media-savvy city that loves to ask them -- still revolve around the young pitchers, continuing to dip their feet into the big league pond in a year of transition. Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte are the horses, and Mike Mussina will offer what he can at age 39.
But, with a World Series drought now on its eighth year, and a stranglehold on American League East titles a thing of the past, some believe the Yankees can only go as far as their young pitching takes them.
"I think they go hand-in-hand," Chamberlain said. "The young'ins look to the veteran guys and they keep us in check, but we've also got to be around to give them energy. I think it's going to be great chemistry. We've learned a lot from each other."
Luckily for manager Joe Girardi, he believes that both Hughes and Kennedy -- the two starters he is leaning heavily upon -- go far beyond where their birth certificates peg them.
"I think they're very mature for what they've been through so far in their careers," Girardi said. "I think they've handled it very well. I go back to September a lot, where each game they started mattered. Each game they pitched in mattered, because the Yankees were fighting for a division, plus a Wild Card. That's pitching under pressure every time you take the ball. I think that sped up the growth process."
Hughes took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his second big league start on May 1 at Texas, but he may have earned his boldest stripes in October. Sidelined by a strained hamstring and then a sprained ankle for a large bit of the season, Hughes came out of the bullpen in the American League Division Series when Roger Clemens sputtered, and pitched well on the big stage, earning the Yankees' only victory of their abbreviated postseason.
The experience of being exposed to, and succeeding under, that level of emotional stress is something that Hughes believes will benefit him. The youngest Yankees pitcher to start one of New York's first three games of the season since Waite Hoyt in 1921, the 21-year-old Hughes twirled six innings of two-run ball against the Blue Jays on Thursday.
"Having pitched in that kind of big-game environment and pressure situations helps," Hughes said. "I don't think it's necessarily anything you learn, but it's a matter of being in those big situations and dealing with it. It's going to only help you down the line, so when you do pitch in another big game, it won't feel like such a shocker."
One of the biggest lessons Hughes said he learned in October was that the red, white and blue bunting doesn't necessarily change the game. It may have been nationally televised in front of a larger-than-usual audience, but Hughes said he stuck to the same assets that allowed him to trade his Scranton/Wilkes-Barre uniform for a New York one.
"It's everybody's goal to be pitching at that point, but I don't think it necessarily makes you different," Hughes said. "You may have adrenaline here and there, but it's still the same mound, the same plate, the same strike zone. It's just a matter of getting it done."
There will be speed bumps along the way, a fact Kennedy learned the hard way last week against the Rays. Having succeeded at all three stops on his way to the big leagues last year, Kennedy posted a 1.89 ERA in three September starts for New York before a strained muscle removed him from consideration for the postseason roster.
"At first, it's kind of overwhelming, because you've got the stadium looking over you," Kennedy said. "It's not like that at Scranton or [Double-A] Trenton. You get used to it after a while and it goes back to normal."
Tampa Bay wasn't impressed by those snippets from the media guide, pounding him for six earned runs and chasing him in the third inning on Friday. The last time Kennedy surrendered four earned runs or more, it was his Double-A debut. To find an outing that short, Kennedy said he had to flip the pages all the way back to Hawaii Winter Baseball.
But Kennedy will continue to have his chances to pitch in the big leagues, a good thing, since he was already looking forward to the Royals as he broke down what went wrong against the Rays. He said taking a pounding in his fourth big league start would not discourage him and wipe clean the last 12-plus months of professional success.
"Going to Spring Training and knowing these guys made me feel comfortable," Kennedy said. "I think it helped a lot, knowing that I can pitch in the big leagues. They're a lot better hitters, but they're still hitters. You have to go after them the same way, throw strikes and get ahead. If you don't, they're Major League hitters and they take advantage of it if you pitch behind."
Of the three hurlers -- dubbed 'Generation Trey' by one New York tabloid; Hughes prefers to call the friends "The Three Amigos" -- Chamberlain is by far the most electric, recognizable for both his boisterous demeanor and a fastball that crackled past a batter on Sunday at 101 mph.
Kennedy likes to tell a story of how he dined with Chamberlain at Outback Steakhouse recently, and the 22-year-old Chamberlain was offered a free dessert by the wait staff. Kennedy sat idly and anonymously at the same table and watched Chamberlain eat the brownie. The only comparison Kennedy could offer was being recognized by a cashier at a New Jersey café, where he was asked to sign an autograph on a scrap of receipt tape.
"I was like, 'How do you know me?' It was kind of surprising," Kennedy said. "It doesn't happen, even when I'm with Joba. They recognize Joba everywhere. As long as I get a free dessert or something, it's kind of fun. I don't mind it at all -- I can go anywhere. He can't."
But Chamberlain's personality demands that sort of recognition. It was his pirouette, fist pump and scream after striking out the Blue Jays' Frank Thomas on Opening Night that provided more than two days worth of talk-radio ammunition for New York callers, fueling the debate between emotional displays, showmanship and showing up an opponent.
For the record, Chamberlain said that he wears his heart on his sleeve and won't change for anyone -- an overstatement, perhaps, since Girardi said he would watch the situation closely to see if it gets out of hand. Then again, with another two innings of scoreless ball on Sunday, Chamberlain has now just allowed one earned run in 28 innings of regular-season big league duty, striking out 38.
As long as Chamberlain can keep avoiding another meltdown such as the Game 2 American League Division Series loss in Cleveland last year -- under adverse midge-filled conditions -- Girardi may not want to change a thing with his young stable.
"It's definitely exciting to be a young guy in this organization and to know you have a shot to wear this uniform," Chamberlain said. "There's a lot of young guys in this system who can play at the big league level and help this team."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.