Hughes a difference-maker in 'pen
Move has paid dividends for righty, Yanks' playoff hopes
NEW YORK -- The bullpen door swung open, and Phil Hughes entered a postseason game in the Bronx, each step across the plush outfield grass padded with the heart-racing anticipation of knowing an entire city was tracking his every movement.
But this was across the street at the old Yankee Stadium, with two fewer years of pitching experience under Hughes' belt. Roger Clemens had just walked off a Major League diamond for the final time, leaving a fresh-faced rookie to clean up his mess and save the Yankees' season.
In the end, the 2007 American League Division Series didn't work out in the Yankees' favor, bounced by the Indians in four games. But for one night, Hughes was on center stage in the biggest game of the year, soaking up every ounce of the postseason atmosphere.
"Like I am now, I wasn't too picky about what my role was or how I was going to help the team," Hughes said. "I just wanted to be there, come in and try to get outs, because we were losing at the time and facing elimination. I just wanted to keep it as close as we could and score runs, and we did."
Those 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief may not have helped the Yankees advance to the next round, but they resuscitated life into a team long enough for Johnny Damon to hit a game-winning home run. Now thrust into an even more important setup role, those innings were valuable for Hughes to see.
"It was a cool experience," Hughes said. "You get a feel for the playoff atmosphere and what to expect. The old Yankee Stadium was a little different -- the fans were right on top of you, and it was a packed house. They were into every pitch and it was a pretty special experience. Hopefully, we'll have some more of those."
Here in 2009, the original plan was not that Hughes would be this lockdown bridge to closer Mariano Rivera. But the perfect storm has worked out well for the Yankees, with Hughes posting a Major League-best 1.40 ERA and three saves in 44 relief appearances. They are not about to start complaining.
"He's got a lot of confidence right now," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "That's the biggest thing. When you have success, I think it helps your confidence. Right now, it seems like he's pretty confident out there. He's been pitching well ever since he started pitching in the bullpen, he's done a great job. He's a big reason that we've won a lot of games."
Once lauded as the Yankees' top starting pitching prospect, Hughes didn't make the Opening Day roster and was summoned as a spot starter. Relegated to a temporary long-relief role in anticipation of a demotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to continue building his innings, Hughes instead slipped into more important assignments.
That return trip to Moosic, Pa., never came, as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees would have to go the rest of the way without Hughes. Had he been told in Spring Training that this would have been the way it was going to work out, Hughes wouldn't have bought it.
"I just kind of dealt with it," Hughes said. "It wasn't like I was going from pitching to hitting. I still had to make pitches, and that's the way I viewed it -- to throw strikes and be aggressive. It's worked out to this point."
Hughes had a front-row seat for Joba Chamberlain's 2007 dominance in a setup role, so this certainly is not a new tale in the Bronx. The Yankees eventually transitioned Chamberlain back into a starting pitcher, and that leaves Hughes with the indication that the bullpen will be temporary.
|"He's got a lot of confidence right now. That's the biggest thing. When you have success, I think it helps your confidence. Right now, it seems like he's pretty confident out there. He's been pitching well ever since he started pitching in the bullpen, he's done a great job. He's a big reason that we've won a lot of games."|
|-- Derek Jeter, on Phil Hughes|
"I do still consider myself still a starter," Hughes said. "It was kind of a weird thing for a little while just to be down there, but I feel like I still have what it takes to be able to be a starter. I plan to deal with that come Spring Training."
Yet there is no questioning Hughes has solidified the Yankees' bullpen. Opponents hit .173 against him, with 37 appearances having been scoreless and 24 of those being hitless. Hughes figures the breakout season would have happened regardless of the role.
"I feel like I was throwing the ball well to begin with, and it just translated well," Hughes said. "I felt like going back to the [Arizona] Fall League and Spring Training and the early part of the year, I was getting my confidence back and pitching well. I think the bullpen translation was just a matter of my stuff being better and confidence being higher."
Now with Chamberlain reinserted to the bullpen for at least the ALDS and possibly the entire postseason, the Yankees have a formidable lockdown set that prompted Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to muse on Thursday that New York might be shortening games to only six innings.
"You take these young guys that just can go out there for an inning or so and let it fly with great arms," Gardenhire said. "If they can handle that out of the bullpen, that's a wonderful thing. And that just shows you how strong their ballclub is.
"There's always a reason why a team wins 103 ballgames. You have to have a lot of ammunition and a lot of different ways to win ballgames. They can make a start last about six innings now with that bullpen. And then you go to those guys. They can shut you down."
Rivera, the senior member of the Yankees' roster, said on the eve of the ALDS that he didn't feel any need to speak to Hughes about the situation or what is at stake. From starters to middle relief and then the handoff to Hughes and Rivera, the formula has worked for much of the season. If it continues through October, the Yankees will be tough to dispose of.
"We take pride in that. It's basically our job," Hughes said. "We don't want to feel like the weak link out there. We've been doing a great job all year, but this is the time that really counts. We know that the starters get a good start, and we have to go out there and finish the deal."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.