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03/22/10 6:06 PM ET

Hughes, Joba making it tough for Girardi

Yankees manager aims to assign fifth-starter gig by Friday

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The reams of raw data concerning the Yankees' fifth starter competition have all been compiled: every crackling fastball, biting breaking ball, well-tossed changeup and wind-aided home run.

On a day when both Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes could have put the final stamps on their respective cases for the assignment, all that remains for manager Joe Girardi and team brass to do is make their final decisions.

If they have not used their own minds to whittle down the group of Chamberlain, Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre, the time to do so is quickly approaching.

"I think they all took things that they needed to work on and went after it," Girardi said. "Pitching six, seven innings, three times through a lineup, is different than one inning. You have to have more weapons and have to be able to locate. We talked about that with the guys and I thought they all attacked this in the right way."

After Chamberlain hurled five innings against an intrasquad lineup back at the Yankees' spring home, Hughes wowed Girardi with his best stuff of the Grapefruit League in 4 1/3 frames against the Phillies at Bright House Field.

The black marks against Hughes -- three home runs, served up to Ben Francisco, Dane Sardinha and a game-winning shot by Wilson Valdez -- were quickly excused. The gusty conditions permitted that, as Girardi and Hughes both discounted what the scoreboard blared in favor of what their eyes told them.

"I felt really good with all my pitches," Hughes said. "It seemed like every fly ball that got hit out there was either hit off the wall or left the yard. I thought I threw a few of the best changeups I've ever thrown, and probably the first strikeout I've ever gotten off a changeup. It's hard to swallow the three home runs, because I'm happy with the way I threw."

Whether that is enough to hold back Chamberlain, who is scampering to catch up after struggling early in camp, remains to be seen. But Hughes certainly hasn't offered much wiggle room this spring, and whatever Chamberlain was able to accomplish in front of more than 11,000 empty blue seats will have to do.

Chamberlain took the mound at George M. Steinbrenner Field as the sun was still rising on Monday, toeing the rubber in a 10 a.m. ET game that one had to squint to see. It reminded him of his days fighting just to make it to the Yankees, rather than battling for a prized assignment on the roster.

"It's like being back in the Florida State League, where it all started," Chamberlain said. "That's kind of the mind-set I took out of it. I thought it was good, because it kind of took me back to where I started and why I got to where I'm at; the hard work and everything."

Recording 15 outs against a loose rotation of eight hitters that included Randy Winn and Marcus Thames, Chamberlain allowed three extra-base hits in a 75-pitch showing. Girardi said he saw readings around 93 or 94 mph, and Chamberlain finished up by discussing how he felt he'd also thrown good changeups and continued to get his legs under him.

"It keeps getting better," Chamberlain said. "This was probably the best my changeup has ever been. I threw some great pitches today. There's times I got a little bit tired, but those are times you've got to bear in and not take a pitch off, because it can hurt you."

Girardi has circled Thursday or Friday as the day on his calendar when he would like to have the fifth-starter competition ironed out, so that whoever is headed to the bullpen can prepare. Chamberlain again insisted he has no preference for starting or relieving, and said he's actually giving the situation less thought now than in February.

"I've just been in a routine," Chamberlain said. "It's just one of those questions you're faced with every day. It's human nature when you get asked every day to think about it, so it's just something where I've gone back to having fun. I'm just enjoying being out here, putting this uniform on and competing with these guys."

Girardi said that it was "just by circumstance" that he had Chamberlain pitch in the artificial game in Tampa, with Hughes relieving against the Phillies in Clearwater, and admitted that the competition "seems like it gets muddled more every day." But he cautioned not to take the pitching assignments as indicators of a decision that had already been made.

"There was no rhyme or reason," Girardi said. "It's big league camp, big league hitters. We left guys back that were older, experienced hitters."

As he wore a heavy ice pack on his pitching shoulder, Hughes seemed pleased with his showing against the Phillies, particularly a ninth-inning strikeout of Dewayne Wise on a darting changeup that had those in the clubhouse buzzing as the television feed was beamed in.

Hughes said that he is a better pitcher than he was in 2007, when he had no cutter to turn to, and would take this version of himself over '08, when he was essentially limited to throwing fastballs and curveballs coming off injury. He is stronger now and, as he said, "I feel like this is my time."

"I've done all I can do," Hughes said. "We'll just have to see where they want to go from here. ... I've kind of learned around here just to roll with the punches. What you say isn't going to affect anything. You just have to go out and do the best you can, and see what decisions come from it."

That process is just around the corner, and Girardi knows that someone of that group of five will be taking a gut-punch when the bad news comes down. There are only so many pegs to plug in, and Girardi has repeatedly stated that the Yankees will take the 12 best arms, regardless of where they fit.

"We know there's going to be disappointment, because every one of them wants to be the fifth starter," Girardi said. "But we don't have five slots, we have one slot. I know whatever role that we ask our guys to do, I believe they'll be ready to do it."

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