Commentary

For Phil, heat is on when heat is gone

Previously winless Red Sox pounce on Yanks' No. 3 starter, who can't find his fastball

Updated: April 9, 2011, 10:16 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Lost: One fastball, approximately 92-94 mph. Tough to hit. Last seen around June 2010. If found, please return to Philip Joseph Hughes of Tustin, Calif., and the Bronx, N.Y.

It's no longer a joke. Phil Hughes has misplaced his fastball, has no idea where it went and even less of an idea of how to get it back.

"Right now, it's just not there," Hughes said of his wayward No. 1 Express. "And I need to figure it out and figure out what I need to do. Because 89, 90, maybe an occasional 91, that's just not going to get it done."

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes' ERA is 16.50 through his first two starts.

On a day in which a sellout crowd came to Fenway Park wondering when the Boston Red Sox would win a game this season, the New York Yankees left wondering the same thing about Hughes. After a disastrous first outing in which he allowed five runs in four innings to the Tigers last week, Hughes was even worse on Friday, lasting just two innings, allowing six earned runs and sending 37,178 people home happy as the Sox broke their six-game losing streak with a 9-6 victory over the Yankees in their home opener.

Of course, the Red Sox were going to win at least one game this season, and probably will win a few more. The story on this day, as far as the Yankees were concerned, was the state of their No. 3 starter, who won 18 games for them last year and was considered at the start of spring training to be one of two sure things in an otherwise iffy rotation.

"I don't know if he can duplicate what he did last year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in the privacy of the cramped visiting manager's office after the rest of the media had cleared out. "Eighteen wins, that's tough. That's a tall order for any pitcher. But we feel he's gonna pitch well, and I still feel that. By no means am I saying this kid's not going to have a good year."

It's just that after his first two starts of the season, no one is quite sure how, least of all Hughes.

"That's two awful starts now," he said. "I don't feel like I'm bringing anything to the team right now and that's a tough thing to deal with. It's difficult because I know I can do a lot better, but I'm going out there without my best stuff, and it's frustrating."

Hughes' best stuff, of course, is his fastball, which regularly hit between 92 and 94 mph the first half of last season, with the occasional spike to 95, and as a result, he was dominant for the first month of the season, going 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA by May 12 and just missing a no-hitter against the Oakland A's in his second start of the season.

But as the season wore on, his first full season as a starting pitcher, Hughes wore down. After allowing just eight home runs in the first three months, Hughes gave up 17 over the last three months. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio plummeted and his ERA soared, finally settling at 4.19 for the season.

Most revealingly, even though the Yankees skipped him in the rotation twice to limit his innings and preserve his arm strength, Hughes' fastball cooled, revealing the relative ineffectiveness of his secondary pitched. Without that exceptional heater, Hughes simply no longer had swing-and-miss stuff.

Now, in his second year as a starter and presumably, approaching full strength at 24 years old, he still doesn't. And unlike last year, when he started strong and gradually wound down, this season Hughes' velocity and effectiveness has nowhere to go but up.

Although Girardi, a serial downplayer, loves to peddle the fiction that velocity really doesn't matter -- last week he even tried, unsuccessfully, to compare Hughes as a pitcher to Jamie Moyer, an analogy that leaked like a sieve under questioning -- Hughes admitted that for him, velocity is not only important, but crucial to his success.

"It's a big difference, especially for me," he said of his 2011 fastball compared with its 2010 counterpart.

And in fact, it is for just about everyone who can't paint the edges of the plate or freeze hitters with an exceptional pitch, like Koufax's curveball or Mariano's cutter. It's just simple common sense: a pitch that gets to the plate faster is harder to react to, and thus harder to hit. Right now, Hughes' pitches are neither.

"When a guy throws 100, guys have to commit to everything quicker," Hughes said. "If your velocity's down, it makes everything less effective. I'm getting no swings and misses on my fastball, so they can kinda sit back and foul it off when they're down in the count and look for a mistake out over the plate on something else, or a fastball if their geared up for it. It's kind of a snowball effect as far as my other pitches go."

And it was a blizzard of hits that buried Hughes at Fenway on Friday. In the first inning, Dustin Pedroia sat on an 81-mph changeup and crushed it into the Monster seats above the left-field fence.

In the second, three straight singles, each hit harder than the one before it, sparked a five-run inning, helped immeasurably by Derek Jeter's decision to eschew getting the lead runner on Carl Crawford's grounder to short, allowing the Sox to move two runners into scoring position for Pedroia, who promptly knocked them both in with another single.

Curtis Granderson's throwing error allowed Pedroia to take second, from where he was knocked in by Adrian Gonzalez. One more RBI single, by David Ortiz, and Hughes' day was done after a mere 47 pitches.

Hughes, Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild insist the pitcher is healthy, and that his problem stems not from a mechanical problem but a lack of arm strength. But ask them why Hughes, whose right arm was plenty strong at this point last season, is weaker this year and none of them can give you a definitive answer.

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," Hughes said. "I don't know. My arm just isn't strong. It's not necessarily hurt. It's just not getting through the zone and getting through my release point as quickly and as powerfully as it needs to. If I had an answer, I'd share it."

"There is no remedy," Rothschild said. "I've seen guys go through it. It is a tough road until he gets back to that point."

In some ways, it is reminiscent of what happened with Javier Vazquez last season. He, too, inexplicably lost his fastball and tried to live in the 89-90 mph zone. He found it impossible, and never was able to recapture his old heat, or figure out where it had gone in the first place.

"Javy was an older pitcher," Girardi pointed out. "To me, the situation is different. I just feel it's different."

He has to hope and pray that it is. Right now, the Yankees don't know if more work is the answer for Hughes, or less work. They don't know if skipping a start will help or hurt. They don't even know if he will ever again throw the way Phil Hughes the reliever did a couple of years ago, or the way Phil Hughes the novice starter did for the first half of last year.

All they know is that one arm they assumed would not be a problem for them this year suddenly looks as if it might be a huge one.

Phil Hughes has lost his fastball, and without it he can't win.

And if he doesn't win, neither do the Yankees.

• • •

In a typical Fenway Park pitcher's duel, Red Sox starter John Lackey pitched nearly as poorly as Hughes did -- 5 IP, 7 H, 6 ER -- and wound up with the win when Boston took advantage of a fifth-inning error by Mark Teixeira to score an unearned run off Bartolo Colon, who pitched well but wound up with the loss. The Red Sox added two more in the seventh when Girardi pulled Colon, who had allowed an infield single, to have Boone Logan face Ortiz in a lefty-lefty matchup. Ortiz doubled off the left-field fence, J.D. Drew followed with a two-RBI single and that was that. ... Brett Gardner, leading off for the fifth time this season, had his best game so far with a triple, a double, two walks, a stolen base, an RBI and two runs scored. ... Alex Rodriguez hit a Monster home run, literally, clear over the 37-foot high wall and the seats beyond it in the fifth for his third of the season. ... Ivan Nova (1-0, 4.50) makes his first start at Fenway on Saturday against RHP Clay Buchholz (0-1, 5.68). First pitch at 1:10 p.m. Fox will telecast.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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