Closing argument: Can Hughes finish?

9/5/2010 - MLB Phil Hughes New York Yankees + more

NEW YORK -- New York Yankees starter Phil Hughes kept getting ahead 0-2 and giving up home runs on Sunday, which leads to a big question: Can he finish?

The answer on Sunday was a resounding no. But the bigger issue is Hughes' ability to finish what he started this year.

Can his final eight weeks look like his first eight weeks?

Hughes built his All-Star selection on a 2.00 ERA in April and a 3.03 ERA in May. In June, Hughes ERA rose to 5.17, while in July it was 5.52. In August, it was 4.22. September has now begun with a season-high six runs (all earned) in six innings.

What will he do in October?

With A.J. Burnett as inconsistent as ever, Javy Vazquez in jeopardy of not even being on the playoff roster and Andy Pettitte still recovering from his groin injury, the Yankees may need Hughes to ride shotgun, next to CC Sabathia in October if they are going to hop on floats in the Canyon of Heroes come November.

"We need to get him back on track because he is extremely important to us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

When asked if the playoffs started tomorrow, would Hughes be in his postseason rotation, Girardi went Drew Rosenhaus, replying with "Next question." There are no easy answers now when Girardi thinks about who will start Games 2 and 3 of the ALDS, and there may not be a month from now.

So Hughes, who entered spring training trying to win the fifth starter's spot, is now trying to win a spot in the postseason rotation.

On Sunday, Hughes didn't help his cause as he couldn't close out the Toronto Blue Jays. While he had pretty good stuff, he gave up a two-out, 0-2 two-run homer to Vernon Wells in the first inning and a one-out, 0-2 two-run homer to Aaron Hill in the third.

Mix in a third homer, a solo shot to John Buck in the sixth, and Hughes single-handedly ended the Yankees' season-high eight-game winning streak as the Jays avoided being swept with a 7-3 victory.

"Two 0-2 pitches cost him the game," Girardi said.

The problem for Hughes is that he continues to be high in the strike zone. He is not controlling his fastball, carelessly giving away runs and watching his ERA swell.

Last time out, Hughes struggled through a workmanlike performance going five innings, allowing two runs (earned), while losing control of his pitches against the Oakland A's. Still, he won.

The previous outing, Hughes lasted only 3⅔ innings against these same Blue Jays in Toronto. They racked him for five runs. In his previous two outings, Hughes walked five each time. On Sunday, he walked only one.

"[Sunday] was obviously better than the last two times," Hughes said.

On Sunday, he threw more precisely, except when he tried to close Wells and Hill out, which on a sunny day in September is not good enough, but would be magnified in the cool of October. He missed on a fastball to Wells and a cutter to Hill, leaving questions about whether he is tired, having thrown more innings on this level than he ever has before.

"That's the million [dollar] question," Girardi said.

The manager decided he didn't think that Hughes was tired. Hughes agreed with his manager's assessment. Still, something is not totally right.

If the playoffs began today, Hughes would be asked to start. If Pettitte comes back and Burnett discovers some consistency, then maybe Hughes slides down into the fourth slot. But those are two "ifs," leaving a lot of pressure for Hughes to finish what he started this season.

As the manager, who likes to reveal as little as possible, said: It is "extremely important."

Game notes
Another meek effort from Derek Jeter. He went 0-for-4 with a walk. He hit into a first-inning doubleplay, flew out weakly on two occasions and struck out. "We're getting there," said Jeter, indicating he thinks his swing felt better. Jeter has now gone 13 straight games with either zero or one hits. That is his longest streak since 2002, when he went 14 games. Jeter's average is down to .264. ... Hughes also gave up six runs to the Los Angeles Angels (July 20) and Seattle Mariners (June 29) this season. ... Brett Cecil is 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA against the Yankees in 2010. Felix Hernandez is the only other pitcher 3-0 vs. the Yankees this year. ... With Alex Rodriguez's return, the Yankees' eight-game losing streak was snapped. The Yankees are 21-3 when A-Rod doesn't play. They are 65-48 when he does.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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