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06/29/10 11:55 PM ET

Rested Hughes can't match up to Lee

Budding ace endures worst start of season in loss to Mariners

NEW YORK -- Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium was a study in development.

In pinstripes was Phil Hughes, the 24-year-old who entered his start against the Mariners with a sparkling 10-1 record but hadn't started a game in 10 days as the Yankees eyed his ever-brightening future. In road grays was Cliff Lee, the man who has become in the past three seasons as certain a bet as any pitcher in baseball.

On the field during the Yankees' 7-4 loss, the anticipated pitching showdown only served to illustrate the gap between Lee's present and Hughes' future, between the surety of an established ace and the growing pains of an emerging one.

After having his turn skipped the last time through the rotation to minimize his innings total, Hughes submitted his worst outing of this breakout season. He allowed a season-high seven runs (six earned) on a career-high 10 hits in just 5 2/3 innings. Hughes couldn't keep a clean sheet in any inning after the first, and the Mariners' line score resembled the old picket fence, with single runs in the second through fifth innings before Seattle scored three times with two outs in the sixth to break open a six-run lead.

Eight of the nine batters in the Mariners' starting lineup collected hits off Hughes. Franklin Gutierrez lined a solo homer to left off the right-hander in the fourth, and Jose Lopez, Michael Saunders and Rob Johnson (twice) all laced doubles off Hughes. Hughes had not allowed more than three extra-base hits in any start this season before yielding five to Seattle's light-hitting lineup.

"I just didn't have command," said Hughes, who had won his previous five starts. "There were a couple of spots where I could have pitched better and gotten out of it. I just didn't make good pitches."

"He was a little off tonight," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He missed some spots with his fastball, and it hurt him."

Four of the Mariners' seven runs scored off Hughes came with two outs, including the trio of runs in the sixth that essentially iced the game. The right-hander also cited Seattle's aggressiveness at the plate and its unwillingness to take first-pitch strikes as factors in his poor performance; both of Johnson's doubles were on the first pitch of the at-bat.

"Offensively, I thought that it was one of the more efficient games that we have played this year," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "We came out playing very aggressive baseball."

While Hughes mentioned his erratic command and Seattle's aggressiveness as possible causes for his worst game of the year, he refused to blame the time off.

"I felt better, actually," Hughes said. "The extra rest made me feel stronger."

While Hughes was laboring, Lee was cruising against a Yankees lineup that could pride itself on having defeated Roy Halladay, Mike Pelfrey and Johan Santana in the span of a week during the club's last homestand. This former Cy Young Award winner was less cooperative.

Lee plies his trade not just in shutting down potent lineups, but in doing so with a nonchalance that can appear condescending. He specializes in beating you, and making it look easy. The left-hander barely appeared to break a sweat on a humid night in the Bronx, with the Yankees recording a single at-bat with a runner in scoring position in the first eight innings. New York's two-run ninth served only to spark perfunctory motion in the Seattle bullpen and make the final score look a tinge better.

"You've got to disrupt his rhythm as best you can, but it doesn't seem like much fazes him out there," said Nick Swisher, who became just the fourth player to hit two home runs off Lee in the same game. "Any time you've got a guy like that on the mound, you've got to bring your 'A' game."

Swisher brought his, hitting a pair of long balls to left-center in the first and fifth innings.

"Even the sun shines on a dog some days, you know?" Swisher said.

Unfortunately, Swisher's homers were the only blemish against Lee through eight innings. The Yankees didn't stash together multiple hits in an inning until the ninth, by which point it was too little, too late.

"We battled him as best we could, but it comes to a point where it's too many runs," said Hughes. "It was just one run, one run, one run, and before you know it, you're kind of out of the game."

Lee allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits in picking up his third consecutive complete-game victory. He has finished what he has started four of the past five times he has taken the mound, and his five complete games lead the American League and are tied for the Major League lead -- despite the fact that he has made only a dozen starts in 2010.

"He never beats himself," Girardi said. "I actually thought we swung the bats as good tonight as we have the last three or four times that we've seen him. We squared some balls up."

The Yankees appeared to have a bead on Lee early, with Swisher's first-inning homer preceding three straight three-ball counts from Lee. Jorge Posada even worked out a walk in the second -- just the second Lee has surrendered in June.

But from that point forward, the Yankees got Lee to ball three only once more. Their patience at the plate led only to 0-2 holes -- five of them on the night -- and quicker innings.

The Yankees can hope that they caught a glimpse of their future on Tuesday -- not the dream that Lee himself will be in pinstripes by Opening Day 2011 so much as the wish that the caution applied to Hughes now pays off big later. As the Mariners lefty showed, Hughes still has some room to grow.

Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.