Pressure's on rookie to deliver for pinstripes

Originally Published: April 24, 2007
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

The word "panic" has historically been blacklisted in baseball, and for good reason. To acknowledge it means feeling it, surrendering to it and making decisions based on its overwhelming presence.

No one wants to admit they're panicking, but what else can the Yankees' summoning of rookie Phil Hughes from Triple-A be except just that -- panic, following a disastrous weekend sweep at Fenway?

Phil Hughes
Rich Kane-US PRESSWIREPhil Hughes went 2-1 with a 3.94 ERA in three starts at Triple-A Scranton this season.
Even using the milder description (worry) or the politically correct term (concern) doesn't minimize the Yankees' crisis. Losers of four straight, the Bombers are getting just 4.9 innings per appearance from their starters, which the Elias Sports Bureau says is last in the majors.

Everyone is hurt, including Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano and Chien-Ming Wang, who finally comes off the disabled list tonight against Tampa Bay. But the franchise's foundation was further rocked on Friday when Mariano Rivera blew a disastrous save against the Red Sox, and was clocked at just 88 mph on the radar gun.

The rest of the bullpen has been so unreliable that Andy Pettitte has already made two relief appearances. The other relievers, it seems, are just waiting for their next flogging, with no cure on the horizon.

No one's going to clone Aaron Small's 10-0 miracle performance in 2005. The landscape is so littered with problems, even Randy Johnson's 5.00 ERA looks good in retrospect.

Through it all, however, the Yankees vowed they wouldn't dare touch Hughes, the farm system's shining star. Some scouts liken the kid to a young John Smoltz, which is why GM Brian Cashman promised -- no, insisted -- that Hughes wasn't ready for the big leagues. Not at age 20.

But 17 games into the season, the Yankees have rewritten the business plan, calling up Hughes from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He'll start Thursday in the Bronx against the Blue Jays with the chance to become a permanent fixture in the rotation.

Did the Yankees panic? Cashman says no, not exactly. But in a telephone interview on Monday, he admitted: "With the injuries we've had over the last three weeks, it just necessitated the move. Our needs overmatched his development process.''

Hughes has had mixed results in the minors, pitching effectively in his first start, getting roughed up in his second, before finally mixing and matching his weapons to perfection in overwhelming Syracuse. In six scoreless innings, he allowed just two hits and struck out 10. Pitching coach Dave Eiland told the Scranton Times-Tribune, "If [Hughes] pitches the way he pitched the last time in Syracuse, he's not going to have any problems."

Of course, there's a wide gulf between Triple-A hitters and facing big leaguers in Yankee Stadium. The obvious question is whether Hughes is really ready, his talent and outward poise aside. The last time the Yankees relied on a rookie in a pressure situation, the results were monumentally bad.

Chase Wright, making only his second major league start, gave up four consecutive home runs Sunday night in Fenway. He was mercifully returned to the minors on Monday morning, and it's anyone's guess what kind of psychological scarring he has suffered.

What was so disheartening for the Yankees is that the weekend could've been so profitable. They scored four runs in the first two innings against previously unhittable Josh Beckett on Saturday. And the next night, the Bombers punctured the myth of Daisuke Matsuzaka's invincibility, ambushing him for six runs in seven innings.

But the Yankees couldn't win either game, which prompted some players to quietly question why Cashman had yet to address the roster's glaring deficiencies. As one veteran put it, "What we have right now, I'm not sure it's enough."

The player said the Yankees need a two-step remedy. The first is calling up Hughes, the second is making sure the Bombers don't get outbid for Roger Clemens the way they were for Matsuzaka.

"I wouldn't say this is one of the better Yankee teams of the last few years."
-- A major league executive

Hughes and Clemens could, theoretically, fix what's wrong with an old, fragile rotation. Even when Mussina returns from the DL, he'll have to prove he can throw harder than 85 mph. At 38, it's fair to wonder if Mussina's diminished velocity is nothing more serious than a sluggish April or, more insidiously, an age-related decline.

And Pavano will have to demonstrate he wants to pitch, period. He's reported yet another mysterious injury -- this time it's a forearm strain that keeps "grabbing" -- that kept him off the mound while the Yankees were being swept.

When asked what the Yankees can realistically expect of Pavano -- who swore, hand on his heart, he was healed physically and spiritually in 2007 -- one member of the organization shook his head and said simply, "Who knows."

This isn't exactly the soft landing the Yankees wanted to give Hughes. He's being asked to do more than simply hold his own; the Yankees need him to win decisively. Even beyond that, the Yankees want the kid to succeed where Mussina, Pavano and Kei Igawa have so far failed: restore the Yankees' aura of invincibility, even if it's for one night.

Don't think people aren't noticing how vulnerable they are. One major league executive said, "I wouldn't say this is one of the better Yankee teams of the last few years."

No wonder the Yankees are looking for help. If it's not panic, it's close enough. They're turning a desperate gaze toward Hughes, one that needs no translation: help.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE