Time remains for Hughes to finish bid
Just 23, righty revisits '07 dominance with gem against A's
OAKLAND -- As Phil Hughes continued deep into another no-hit bid, it was impossible not to think back to the second start of his Major League career, the first time he offered such glimpses of promise and potential on this stage.
It was May 1, 2007, and Hughes had the ball for the Yankees at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, similarly dominating Texas the way he seemed to be in complete control of the Oakland Athletics during Wednesday's 3-1 Yankees win at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Backed by 10 runs in what would go down as his first Major League victory, Hughes saw the feel-good story end in the seventh inning that evening, as a strained left hamstring interrupted the drama.
So as Ryan Sweeney dug in for his third at-bat of the night on Wednesday, Hughes took a deep breath and tried his best to ignore the looming flashback.
"After I got that first out in the seventh, I was just hoping I didn't go down with something," Hughes said. "It's all I was thinking about. It's always nice to have stuff like that, but it's so hard to do. Any little thing can happen, and it did."
Hughes' night might have been spoiled by Eric Chavez's eighth-inning comebacker on Wednesday, but he'd sure take it over that 2007 start. After his last pitch against Texas, Hughes would be sidelined until August, missing 84 team games thanks to a sprained left ankle he suffered while performing agility drills in Tampa, Fla.
While Hughes has remained a prized chip in the time that has passed, it wasn't until Wednesday that he truly seemed all the way back to the level he was in 2007 -- and, he believes, probably better.
"I was much more comfortable and relaxed," Hughes said. "That was still coming off my debut -- I was nervous, anxious, all that stuff. I felt much more relaxed."
Despite several flirtations in the Minors, Hughes' last no-hitter came while he was wearing the uniform of Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif. Through seven innings, he seemed on the way to pitching another one, about seven hours up the California coast.
Hughes went further than he did on that steamy Texas evening, striking out a career-high 10 and wielding a much-improved arsenal than what he owned as a fresh-faced 20-year-old who had former manager Joe Torre on the edge of his seat for 19 Rangers outs three years ago.
"Then, I was strictly fastball-curveball," Hughes said. "Tonight, I threw a good amount of cutters. I wasn't really overthrowing at all -- I was letting my arm do the work. I would probably say my command tonight was the best it's ever been, just with the ability to throw to both sides of the plate and elevate to put guys away."
Maybe Hughes would have thrown a no-hitter that night against the Rangers had he stayed in, just as things might have progressed differently if he'd fielded Chavez's single in Oakland. Then again, maybe not.
"He commanded his fastball really well, and he kept us off balance with his curve," the Rangers' Brad Wilkerson said then. "He got in a groove throwing a lot of fastballs. I think he threw a great game, but hopefully, I think we would have made an adjustment on the fastball and gotten to him. We had some decent swings."
The last batter Hughes faced in that 2007 start was Mark Teixeira, who was looking at an 0-2 count when Hughes walked off the mound.
"I honestly don't remember much of that game, but [Wednesday] is the best I've seen him," Teixeira said. "That's great to see with a young pitcher. It shows he's maturing. This early in the season, to be that sharp on a cold night, he was great."
The A's seemed late and overpowered by most of Hughes' arsenal, but if it all seemed a little bit familiar, there was probably a very good reason.
"I saw the same thing in Texas a couple of years ago," Posada said. "It tells you what kind of stuff he's got. It tells you that when he's on, he's got swing-and-miss stuff -- a lot of life. He goes out there and competes. That's all you can ask for."
When Hughes returned to the bench, he kidded CC Sabathia that the official scorer should have given an error on the Chavez ball, then settled in and allowed himself to daydream a little about what might have been.
"I was thinking about it -- why not?" Hughes said. "It's so hard to do that I guess you've got to fantasize about it sometimes, because it's probably not going to happen again."
If history is any guide, the Yankees would probably bet against that.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.