Commentary

Phil Hughes' heater needs more oomph

Fireballing right-hander's lack of velocity rapidly becoming a concern for Yankees

Updated: April 8, 2011, 12:29 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- What Phil Hughes most wants to avoid will be coming at him from all sides. He doesn't want to think about pumping up his velocity when he is on the Fenway mound Friday, but it is unavoidable because there are mph scoreboards everywhere.

"They have like four [mph scoreboards]," Hughes said with a laugh.

Hughes and the New York Yankees can laugh right now about the biggest issue facing their universe because Red Sox Nation is in a state of panic. The Red Sox, this offseason's hot stove champs, are 0-for-2011.

"I don't care if they are 6-0 or 0-6," Nick Swisher said. "It is Red Sox-Yankees."

Yes, it is.

And it's why the numbers that could be the most important this weekend might not be zero or six; they very well could be nine and three. Put them together, and that is where Hughes' fastball must reach if he's going to be an All-Star quality starter again.

If the Yankees are going to win a division title, it is hard to imagine them doing it without Hughes being vital. A.J. Burnett, for the moment, has moved to No. 2 on the list of rotation concerns. Burnett improved upon his first start of the season (five innings, three runs) and went six innings and allowed two runs in the Yankees' getaway 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Thursday afternoon. So now it's Hughes who must show new life.

The Red Sox might have Charlie Sheen-like issues at present, but if Hughes' heater doesn't resurface, the Yankees will have a "winning" problem of their own.

During the spring, Hughes' lack of velocity was something he and the Yankees tried to play down as scouts whispered about his heater lacking life in Florida. In his first start of the season, Sunday against the Detroit Tigers, he couldn't get over 91 mph and consistently hovered around 88-89 mph with his fastball.

If Hughes doesn't reclaim his velocity and the Red Sox finally win a game, there will be some panic in the Bronx as well. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, however, has tried and will continue to try to make it a non-issue.

He will point to last year when Hughes had a similar problem. He could not lift his fastball above 92 mph until the middle of April.

As the fifth starter, he stayed down in Tampa for two extended spring training starts. And by the time he came north, he was throwing near the mid-90s and eventually made the All-Star team.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was not here for that transformation, but he is in now. Since spring training, he and Hughes have been trying to figure out how to shake a few more miles per hour out of Hughes' right arm. Rothschild doesn't believe in any radical methods, so the most drastic measure he devised -- which isn't that drastic -- is to have Hughes play long toss since Sunday. That and trying to steady Hughes' mechanics.

"He can certainly feel it," Rothschild said. "I think he felt a lot better."

But there is no gun in the bullpen, so neither Hughes nor Rothschild knows whether the reduced righty will have the velocity to win in Boston.

Hughes will not be able to avoid the truth -- good or bad -- that will be staring him in the face Friday.

If Hughes can push his fastball to 93 and the Red Sox to 0-7, he really will have something to laugh about.

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 »

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