Commentary

Hughes' quest more vital than DJ's 3K

Derek's 3,000th will be momentous, but Phil's journey more important to Yanks' season

Updated: July 7, 2011, 2:43 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEVELAND -- The story of Wednesday night's New York Yankees game can be summed up in one declarative sentence: Derek Jeter is still looking for his 3,000th hit and Phil Hughes is still looking for his first win.

And the odds are Jeter will reach his goal before Hughes reaches his. The Yankees lost to the Indians, 5-3, and the only real positive to come out of it is that Jeter got another hit, a line-drive double that sailed over the right fielder's head in the eighth inning to move within three hits of the milestone he has been chasing for the past 16-plus years.

Derek Jeter
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter reaching 3,000 hits may not be as significant to the Yankees' season as some think.

Like Jeter, Hughes is on a comeback of sorts. He pitched reasonably well, but came away with the loss after allowing two runs in the first inning that started the Yankees on a deficit they were never able to overcome.

Jeter now has four games in which to collect three hits and put this long quest behind him before everyone pauses for the All-Star break. Hughes, as the low man on the totem pole of Yankee starters, probably won't get another shot at collecting his first win of the season for at least 10 days.

One will be a momentous event, of course. As Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the game, "There'll be a lot of flashbulbs going off, I'm sure. I think people have anticipated this for a while, the countdown had started, so I think people are pretty excited. I think it's going to be great."

The other will merely be a victory by a pitcher who, before the season, had been counted on to come close to, if not match, his output of last season, when he won 18 games.

And while Jeter's 3,000th hit will be a great personal accomplishment and a capstone to a Hall of Fame-worthy career, a victory by Hughes -- the first of what the Yankees hope will be "several," since it is probably too late for "many" -- will be much more important to the success of the 2011 season.

"Overall, it's nice to be back out there," said Hughes, who despite taking his second loss of the year lowered his ERA from the hideous (13.94) to the merely unsightly (10.57). "I felt like my stuff was OK. I could have been a lot crisper, I'm happy to be back here again. The outcome didn't go the way I would have liked or anyone would have liked, but it's still a positive step just to be in this situation."

The Yankees, of course, will be happy for Jeter once he gets his personal quest out of the way. But they are counting on Hughes. Let's face it. The 37-year-old shortstop with the 2,997 hits has already seen his best days. The Yankees are praying the same is not true of the 25-year-old Hughes.

That is why Girardi seemed to be tempering his enthusiasm about Hughes' performance after a game in which he threw 87 pitches in five innings, allowed two runs on six hits, walked two, struck out two, hit two batters and threw one wild pitch.

"People are going to say that it's a good outing," Girardi said. "But we know he can do better."

Hughes got into trouble right away in the first inning, walking the leadoff hitter, Michael Brantley, and then allowing back-to-back singles to Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner to account for the first run. He struck out Carlos Santana on a 58-foot curveball, but the ball bounded away from Russell Martin, allowing Cabrera to go to third. Then, Martin fired the ball into left field, allowing Cabrera to score.

Hughes settled in after that, but never really settled down. He worked with men on base in every inning, was hit hard several times and loaded the bases in the fifth on two hit batters and a walk. After he escaped the jam, Girardi decided he had done enough for his first night back and went to his Mariano Rivera-less bullpen, which on this night was a disaster.

More about that later. But first, more Hughes. His fastball, missing in action for most of spring training and all of April, hit 93 several times in the first inning, but gradually tailed off to about 91 by the end of his outing. He seemed to rely on a lot of breaking pitches and no matter what he threw, never seemed to be fooling anyone.

"I think that was because he was up a lot, and when it's up it's flat, it's easy to keep your bat on the same plane," Girardi said. "So he's got to throw downhill more the next time he goes out."

Phil Hughs
Rick Osentoski/US PresswirePhil Hughes is still searching for his first win of the 2011 campaign.

"It wasn't too bad," Hughes said. "I felt pretty comfortable from the get-go. I felt like my location wasn't horrible, but my mechanics were a little messed up. Overall, it wasn't good, but I tried to battle and keep us in there." Compared to what followed, Hughes was great. Luis Ayala, called on to work the sixth, lasted two batters -- a single and a fly out that Brett Gardner had to run down in deep left.

Then, Girardi went to his favorite left-handed specialist, Boone Logan, to face Travis Hafner. Logan promptly hit the lefty with a pitch, which was a reversal of roles. Usually, the lefties are hitting Logan.

Logan escaped damage when Alex Rodriguez made a diving stop on Carlos Santana's grounder, but no dive ever made could have prevented Lonnie Chisenhall, another lefty, from reaching the center-field bleachers with two out in the seventh.

That made it a still-manageable 3-0, but Sergio Mitre, recently reacquired after being released by the Brewers, put the game out of reach by loading the bases, forcing in a run with a walk and surrendering a sacrifice fly that ran the Cleveland lead to 5-0. A three-run rally in the ninth by the Yankees almost, but not quite, made you forget how puny their offense had been through the first eight against Justin Masterson, who held the Yankees to two singles and Jeter's rocket of a double with one out in the eighth.

"He's got a great sinking fastball and it's tough to square it up," said Jeter, who came in batting .417 lifetime against Masterson. "But I was happy with my at-bats tonight."

As always, Jeter's extreme superstitions made him ward off any questions involving the future, even a future as near as this weekend, as if to acknowledge such a thing might prevent him from ever getting another hit. He wouldn't even discuss, or acknowledge knowing, which Tampa Bay starters he would be facing this weekend.

"I learned a long time ago you get in trouble looking too far ahead," he said.

For the record, they are Jeff Niemann -- a righty whom Jeter has five hits in nine career at-bats off of -- on Thursday, followed by Jeremy Hellickson on Friday, David Price on Saturday and James Shields on Sunday.

He grudgingly admitted to "looking forward" to returning to Yankee Stadium but refused to talk specifically about what lies ahead for him over the next four days.

"I'm just trying to get hits," he said. "It's not like I'm trying to do anything different. It's not like I'm trying to hit home runs or something like that. So in that sense, everything is pretty much the same."

Finally, under prodding, he said, "I would think it will be kind of fun."

Watching Jeter get his 3,000th hit, hopefully this weekend, will be more than fun. It will be historic and memorable, even if -- after 16 years of steadily excellent performance -- somewhat predictable.

Seeing Phil Hughes get his first win of the season and, the Yankees hope, a bucketful more, won't be nearly as memorable.

But for the immediate future of this team, it will be even more important.

Even vital.

•••

As expected, Girardi said he did not have Rivera available for the game after the 41-year-old closer admitted to some lingering soreness in his right triceps after a pregame long-toss session. Rivera, who played it coy with reporters before the game, played it the same way with the manager. Asked if Rivera told him he could pitch, Girardi said, "He kinda did and he kinda didn't. I took that to mean he needed one more day." Girardi said Rivera would be available Thursday night. ... A-Rod was 2-for-4, the only Yankee to have more than one hit in the game. He is now hitting .397 over his last 15 games (23-for-58), but has not hit a home run since June 11, a span of 81 at-bats. ... Bartolo Colon (6-3, 2.88) gets the ball for the opener against Niemann (3-4, 5.05), first pitch 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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