Commentary

Rule 1: Yankees need Hughes, Joba

Young pitchers, central to the Bombers' October aspirations, are linked yet again

Updated: September 22, 2010, 3:57 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- When the New York Yankees first signed Phil Hughes in 2004, they handed him a big instruction book on how to be a Yankee and sent him to their minor league complex in Tampa, Fla. Hughes, just an 18-year-old California kid, nervously read through all the rules, scared to disobey any of them.

One of them stumped Hughes. He wasn't sure whether he was allowed to leave his room at the Tampa Radisson without a collared shirt on.

So Hughes would do everything in his power to just stay put. After eating enough dinners in front of his TV, he eventually figured out the collared-shirt rule was only on the way to the ballpark.

When Joba Chamberlain first arrived in the majors as the 2007 wunderkind, he didn't even own a suit. He didn't know that to go on the team charter, he needed to be dressed as if he worked on Wall Street. Alex Rodriguez took Chamberlain shopping so he could follow team code for trips.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireJoba Chamberlain picked up the save by pitching
1 2/3 shutout innings.

Now, Hughes confidently walks around the Yankees' clubhouse without a care in the world. Chamberlain owns enough suits for a walk-in closet. The two are in the center of the Yankees' playoffs chances.

On Tuesday, a formula that once looked like the future of the Yankees was uncorked as Hughes started and Chamberlain finished, and the Bombers further took control of the American League East and home-field advantage with an 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The pitchers were interlocked once again.

"We've kind of gone through the same thing, just a little bit different, in terms of his [innings-limit] rules and my rules," Chamberlain said after picking up a five-out save in Hughes' 17th win.

Hughes, 24, right now is ahead of Chamberlain in development, which is a reversal from a few years ago. On Tuesday, Hughes fired 6 1/3 innings of three-run ball. He estimated he threw more changeups Tuesday than he did in his previous 163 innings combined.

The maturation of Hughes -- who admits he hasn't been great since his success the first two months of the season -- could be the Yankees' safety net to the unpredictability of A.J. Burnett.

"Phil is such a more complete pitch than he was," said Andy Pettitte, whose locker is a few stalls down from Hughes'.

The use of the changeup is a perfect example. Last week, Hughes pitched well, going 6 2/3 innings, but he gave up two two-run homers to Dan Johnson. That led to a 4-3 loss in Tampa. Hughes built off that outing, utilizing the change, striking out Johnson in the second and forcing him to ground out in the fifth. He pitched well, although he was once again too wild with five walks.

"I nibbled the strike zone too much," Hughes said.

That, combined with a tendency to give up some home runs, could poison an October start very quickly. Still, his development is going in the right direction for the Yankees.

Chamberlain's importance to the Yankees has waned. Although he earned the save Tuesday with Mariano Rivera needing a day off, his role is diminished. He is no longer the eighth-inning guy, handing that job to Kerry Wood.

But Chamberlain, who turns 25 on Thursday, has that A-Rod quality of always being in the middle of something. Who thinks that come next month, there won't be a time when Chamberlain is asked to get at least one important out, if not more?

Hughes will be, too. His innings limit is approaching. He is at 169 1/3 innings, which means he could be limited or skipped at some point over the next two weeks to avoid making it to his alleged limit of 175 innings.

In the postseason, though, all rules are gone. It is all in. That means Hughes and Chamberlain will be counted on to be difference-makers.

The suits are pressed. The rules are known. They are a duo linked in Yankees history. The question still is: Can they be dynamic for an extended playoff run?

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

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES