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10/08/07 12:20 AM ET

Hughes unlikely hero with relief gem

Clemens' inopportune injury opens door for rookie to shine

NEW YORK -- It was an intimidating situation for Phil Hughes. With the Yankees' season hanging in the balance on Sunday night, an injury forced New York's Roger Clemens to stroll off the mound with one out in the third inning, when he slowly made his way back to the trainer's room.

Yankees manager Joe Torre motioned to the bullpen, where Hughes emerged to replace the future Hall of Famer. A packed Yankee Stadium unleashed a mixed response to Clemens' abrupt exit, sending a chorus of boos in light of New York's deficit, but also noticeable cheers in honor of what might be the final appearance of Clemens' career.

The crowd quickly came together as Hughes began to quiet an Indians offense that has caused fits for the Yankees. The 21-year-old rookie provided a much-needed spark that essentially saved New York's season, leading the Yankees to an 8-4 victory that pulled the club to within one win of evening the best-of-five American League Division Series at two games apiece.

"These kids, you talk about being force-fed," Torre said. "I can't say enough. I remember Phil Hughes, I remember telling him in Spring Training, I said, 'I know there is a lot of talk about you playing at this level.'

"I said, 'You're not going to start the season with us, but there may be some day this year that somebody's going to tap you on the shoulder and say it's your turn.' I certainly didn't envision that as coming out of the bullpen in a Division Series."

That's precisely the situation that Hughes has found himself in, though. Even though the 45-year-old Clemens hadn't pitched for New York since Sept. 16, Torre opted to have him start the critical Game 3 tilt with the Tribe. That kept Hughes in the 'pen, where he sat ready in case Clemens faced any setbacks.

Prior to Sunday's game, Torre told Highes that he might be called upon early. Sure enough, the left hamstring injury that dogged Clemens over the final weeks of the regular season crept up again against the Indians. Trailing, 2-0, the veteran right-hander struck out Cleveland catcher Victor Martinez with a 92-mph fastball for the first out of the third inning, but that might have been the final pitch of the Rocket's career.

"They told me beforehand just to be ready," said Hughes, who blanked Cleveland for 3 2/3 innings en route to his first postseason victory, "because you never know what's going to happen. He hadn't pitched in a while. Obviously, I was needed tonight, so I just try to stay mentally prepared for that."

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Aside from a minor blip in the third, when Hughes allowed a double to Jhonny Peralta that tacked a third run onto Clemens' line, the young fireballer dominated Cleveland. Hughes picked up the final two outs in the third and set down the Indians in order in the fourth, notching strikeouts against Trot Nixon and Grady Sizemore in the frame.

Cleveland's Travis Hafner -- the Indians' hero in Game 2, when he provided the game-winning hit in the 11th inning -- reached on an error by Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano with one out in the fifth. Unfazed, Hughes induced a flyout off the bat of Victor Martinez and followed by freezing Ryan Garko with a 91-mph fastball for an inning-ending strikeout.

In the sixth, Peralta roped an offering from Hughes into left field for a leadoff single. Once again, Hughes locked in and quashed a potential Cleveland rally. Kenny Lofton went down swinging, Nixon popped out to left, and Casey Blake put the finishing touch on Hughes' night with an innocent flyout to right field.

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"Tonight was unbelievable," Hughes said. "Just the crowd behind me and the way they were in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. You know, it was something I've never experienced before, and it's hopefully something I'll get to experience for a lot of years."

Hughes' performance provided ample time for New York's lineup to find the potency it lacked in the first two losses in Cleveland. The Yankees made the most of the rook's effort by pounding out seven runs between the fifth and sixth innings. With the lead well in hand, Torre turned to fellow rookie Joba Chamberlain, who successfully bridged the gap to closer Mariano Rivera.

"To come in the way [Hughes] did -- and he obviously is not used to coming out of the bullpen -- once he settled in after that first inning, he looked like a seasoned pro out there," Torre said. "When we took him out, he looks you right in the eye, and you know he was happy that he was able to give us those innings."

Especially under such extreme circumstances and after seeing Clemens hang his head after being unable to last any longer. But, the Future looked bright after the Rocket departed.

"He took it," Torre said of Hughes, "and was certainly focused and was very calm for a youngster with the inexperience and all that. I just can't say enough about him."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.