Commentary

Bart taking bruise out of Hughes news

Colon keeping Yanks afloat as young righty's mysterious ailment continues to perplex

Updated: May 3, 2011, 10:54 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- The Yankees still don't have an answer on Phil Hughes. But they seem to have an answer for Phil Hughes.

That answer is Bartolo Colon.

Hughes underwent his tests at the St. Louis office of vascular surgeon Dr. Robert William Thompson on Monday afternoon. Everything came back clean, which means he doesn't have thoracic outlet syndrome, the serious and potentially career-ending circulatory condition that finished Jeremy Bonderman at 26, just two years older than Hughes.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioBartolo Colon just didn't have it for the Yankees as he gave up five runs in the first two innings.

But no news is not necessarily good news, since the Yankees are back to where they started a couple of weeks ago, with a young, seemingly healthy pitcher who has suddenly lost his fastball and with no rational or satisfying way to explain it.

The fact that Hughes doesn't have TOS is good news for him, but the fact is the Yankees still don't have Hughes, and all their double-talk and best-casing aside, they really have no idea when or if they will have him again this season.

Which brings us back to Colon, who at the beginning of spring training was just another spare part in a washed-up pitchers junkyard being accumulated by Brian Cashman but who now is as important a part of the Yankees' starting rotation as CC Sabathia.

Colon threw another gem Monday night, seven innings of three-run ball against the Tigers. In a world without Alex Avila, who hit two solo homers off him, he probably would have coasted to his third straight victory since being rescued from the limbo of long relief and, of necessity, thrust into the rotation.

Between surrendering the homers to Avila and watching his teammates waste opportunity after opportunity, going 1-for-their-first-13 with runners in scoring position before Nick Swisher delivered the timely single that scored Mark Teixeira with what would be the winning run in the Yankees' 5-3 victory at Comerica Park, Colon was doomed to a no-decision.

But right now, he looks like the best decision Cashman & Co. made all winter. In six appearances -- the first three as a reliever and the last three as a starter -- Colon has pitched 33 innings, struck out 33 batters and walked just six. His ERA is 3.00, his record 2-1. He is a pot-bellied, strike-throwing machine who eats nothing as efficiently as he gobbles up innings.

Because of him, the Yankees were able to give Rafael Soriano the night off, and David Robertson and Boone Logan. For an incredibly sloppy game, the pitching progression was as neat as it comes: seven innings from the starter, a scoreless inning from Joba Chamberlain, a perfect inning from Mariano Rivera and another win from a team that hasn't even begun to hit on all cylinders.

But Colon, 38 years old, no more than 5-foot-9 and no less that 275 pounds, just keeps chugging along. Through it all, he has remained humble, repeatedly expressing his appreciation to the Yankees for giving him the opportunity to return to big league ball after an absence of nearly two years.

In truth, it is the Yankees who should be thanking him.

How much more devastating would the Hughes absence loom without Colon here to seamlessly take his place?

"It means a lot," Joe Girardi said. "Because you think about if we had to go further down in our system with some younger kids, it would be difficult. He has really picked us up."

It would mean, perhaps, that the Yankees would have had to rush up Manny Banuelos, just a month past his 20th birthday, in his first full season of Double-A ball. Or Dellin Betances, just 23 years old, like Banuelos a Double-A pitcher, barely a year removed from ligament surgery. Or Andrew Brackman, 25 years old, a veteran of Tommy John surgery in his first Triple-A season.

Any or all of those three are likely to be outstanding major league pitchers some day. But not today, and to have had to rush them into service could have been disastrous.

Or it could have been worse than that. The Yankees might have been forced to add Kevin Millwood, with his 8.00 ERA in Scranton and his 85 mph fastball, into a starting job. Or they might have been compelled to deal one of the whiz kids, such as Jesus Montero or Eduardo Nunez, for a second-rater just to get them over.

Having Colon saves them from all that. In fact, right now he is no worse than their No. 2 starter based on merit. His three starts have been of the highest quality -- 6 2/3 IP against the Blue Jays on April 20, 8 IP against the White Sox last week, 7 IP against the Tigers on Monday night. He gave the Yankees every chance to win all of those games, and eventually, they did.

"I love him because he's a strike thrower," Girardi said. "You don't see him get into too many long counts, and it really helps us out. We don't have to use up the bullpen on the nights he pitches."

Colon doesn't throw 97 mph anymore, although he regularly hit 94 on Monday night, but somehow what he has lost in velocity he has made up in movement on his pitches. His two-seam fastball is particularly vexing; five of his seven strikeout victims went down looking at it.

"I'm not doing anything different, not gripping the ball different or anything," Colon said through an interpreter. "It's just moving a lot more."

Asked why he thought he was getting so many looking K's -- he had four in his first start, three in his second -- he said, simply, "Because I throw a lot of strikes."

And when it was pointed out to him that he has done even more for the Yankees so far than they have done for him -- he is being paid a flat $900,000 this season -- he shrugged.

"I don't even think about that," he said. "I'm just trying to do everything to help the team win."

So far, he has done that, every time out. And in five days, the Yankees will hand him the ball again. But now, they no longer hope for the best when he goes out there. They expect it.

Meanwhile, Hughes, who won 18 games last year and was penciled in for 18 more this season, is heading back to New York, to some vague "rehab" for a problem that can't even be solved, since it has yet to be defined.

"We need to continue to try to get him strong and try to get him back to where he was," Girardi said, without offering a clue as to how that would be accomplished.

"We're just going to try to keep him going; we're going to try to strengthen him. That's all we can do."

Clearly, the Yankees have yet to find the cure for Phil Hughes.

But they certainly seem to have found his replacement.

NOTES: Jorge Posada, mired in a horrible slump (.150), busted out in the first inning with a bases-loaded drive that hopped over the left-center field fence, scoring two runs but depriving the Yankees of a third when Swisher was forced to stop at third on the ground-rule double. Posada also had a single -- and struck out three times, once looking at a fastball down the middle with men on second and third in the seventh. ... Derek Jeter (.250) had two singles, one an infield hit, but struck out twice against Justin Verlander -- once on a pitch clocked at 100 mph -- and grounded back to the pitcher with the potential go-ahead run on third to end the eighth. ... Eduardo Nunez, playing second in place of the injured Robinson Cano, lined a bullet for a run-scoring double in the second but was thrown out trying to stretch by Verlander, who cut the throw home and pegged to third. ... Curtis Granderson, in his Detroit homecoming -- he missed the trip last year when he was on the DL with a groin strain --- worked out a dramatic 12-pitch walk leading off the ninth but promptly erased himself when, having easily stolen second, his headfirst slide carried him past the bag and he was tagged out. ... Alex Rodriguez (.269) continues to struggle. He went 1-for-5 with an infield single but has just four hits in his past 32 at-bats. ... CC Sabathia (2-1, 2.25) faces RHP Brad Penny (1-3, 6.11) Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. ET.

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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