Commentary

Off-off Broadway

All eyes will be on NLCS Game 1, but Phil Hughes vs. Colby Lewis could define ALCS

Updated: October 16, 2010, 1:14 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Calm down, everybody. Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum will be on stage soon, but first baseball has a very special opening act for you this afternoon: Colby Lewis versus Phil Hughes.

Wait. Where's everyone going?

[+] EnlargeColby Lewis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIn a loss to the Rays in ALDS Game 3, Colby Lewis labored for five innings, but he did not give up a run.

Lewis versus Hughes might lack the star power of Halladay versus Lincecum (will anyone get a hit?) or Cliff Lee versus Andy Pettitte, but it's not like it's a sound check to ignore while you go to the concession stands and decide whether to spend $30 on a black concert T-shirt, either. Hughes is an All-Star and an 18-game winner at age 24, after all, and the Yankees want him to get them a win so they don't go into Game 3 with the possibility of falling behind in the series if they lose to Lee. Having blown a 5-0 lead in Game 1, the Rangers are relying on Lewis to prevent a sweep and get them to New York in pretty good shape with a split.

Not that Lewis will necessarily feel any nerves. After hearing a lot of talk about postseason pressure in the division series, Lewis said that nervous is taking his family to Japan and not knowing what to expect. He did that in 2008 when he signed with the Hiroshima Carp after several underwhelming seasons bouncing between the majors (beginning with Texas) and the minors. Two excellent seasons in Hiroshima (26-17, 2.82 ERA) revitalized his career.

"When I got the opportunity to go over there, I was looking at it to pretty much finish my career over there,'' Lewis said. "It was a situation where it was financially better for me to go at the time and not wanting to be in a situation of going up and down between Triple-A and the big leagues again. It was going over there and having two good years and kind of opening eyes here.''

Lewis signed a two-year deal with his original team last winter and went 12-13 with a 3.78 ERA for the Rangers this season. He struggled with his control in his division series start (five walks) but still held Tampa Bay scoreless for five innings.

"I was like really in awe the first time with some of the fans and the rally towels and that warming up,'' he said of what he learned from the start. "It was all that stuff that you have seen on TV and that you watch in the postseason but never get to experience. But now I have experienced it for the first time and now I know what to expect my second start.''

Lewis didn't pitch against the Yankees this season and so hasn't faced them for several years. Hughes pitched only one inning against Texas this season, but he is familiar with Arlington's stadium, where he has yet to allow a run and earned his first major league victory three years ago. That's the good part of his memory. The bad part of his memory was having to leave that first win with a no-hitter intact in the seventh inning due to a sore hamstring.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswirePhil Hughes was dominant in the Yankees' first-round clincher against the Twins.

"Family and friends know not to really bring it up just because it's not one of my best memories,'' Hughes said. "But at the same time, it was my first major league win, and that certainly is still special.''

After a so-so second half following his All-Star appearance (7-6, 4.90), Hughes pitched an excellent game to clinch the division series against Minnesota last week, holding the Twins scoreless for seven innings and allowing only four singles. Alex Rodriguez called it a "coming out party, a 'Hello, America''' performance.

"He had to face some different things in that game,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "He had a long break between the fourth and fifth inning, came in, and they got some runners on in the fifth and they had a scoring chance in the fifth and sixth, and he got out of it without giving up any runs. I think he grew a lot in that game.''

The odd thing is that the Yankees' rotation beyond ace CC Sabathia was a bit of a question mark heading into the postseason, but Hughes and Pettite were exceptional in the division series while the heavily rested Sabathia has allowed nine runs and seven walks in 10 innings this month. Fortunately for the Yankees, New York's bullpen has bailed him out both times with eight combined scoreless innings of relief to win both games.

"CC has picked us up so many times when we needed rest in the bullpen,'' Joba Chamberlain said. "For us to do it for him is awesome.''

Overall, New York's bullpen has allowed just one run in 12 innings this postseason. "The addition of [Kerry Wood] has been huge,'' Sabathia said.

The Rangers' bullpen had the second-lowest ERA in the American League, but it has struggled this postseason. While the Texas starters have been superb, the bullpen is 0-2 with a 6.32 ERA. It blew a lead in Game 3 of the division series when Texas had a chance to clinch at home and couldn't hold a four-run lead in the eighth inning Friday night.

So pitching fans might just want to tune in to this opening act before settling in for the main feature. Plus, who knows? Nolan Ryan could throw out the first pitch again.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com