Commentary

Loss opens door for 'QB' controversy

With Phil Hughes losing to the hapless Mariners, Ivan Nova may get another shot

Updated: July 28, 2011, 2:47 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

You can't lose 'em all, not even if you are the Seattle Mariners and you have not won a game since July 5.

So the odds were that, at some point, the hapless Mariners would rise up to beat someone, anyone, in spite of themselves. On Wednesday afternoon in the Bronx, that someone happened to be the New York Yankees.

The Mariners "exploded,'' or at least came as close to explosion as this punchless bunch can, to beat the Yankees 9-2 and finally snap their 17-game losing streak.

No catastrophe there.

And of course, some pitcher had to take the loss, and that pitcher -- or "that guy," as he referred to himself afterward -- turned out to be Phil Hughes, who on paper turned in a creditable showing, allowing just two runs in six innings of work.

No disaster there, either.

In any baseball season, the best teams will lose at least 60 times and the worst ones will win about the same number. The Yankees' loss column now stands at 41, the Mariners win column at 44. There is nothing unusual in any of this.

Until, of course, you take a peek behind the curtain and realize that Hughes' performance was a lot less than the sum of its numbers, and despite the fact that, according to the record, the Yankees are among the three best teams in baseball, they haven't got a prayer of getting to the World Series -- let alone winning it -- with their current pitching rotation.

Even Joe Girardi appears to realize this, which is why this most confrontation-averse manager in perhaps all of professional sports left the door open, if only a crack, to his own worst nightmare: the baseball equivalent of the dreaded quarterback controversy.

"There could be,'' the manager said when asked if there might now be a renewed competition between Hughes and Ivan Nova, who is currently banished to the purgatory of Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but about to re-emerge in the Bronx this weekend, for the final spot in the Yankees' starting rotation.

"I'm not gonna say that there will be, but we want our guys to compete all the time, that's the bottom line,'' Girardi said. "We want guys to throw the ball well and earn their spots every time. But to say there's a competition for Phil Hughes' next start, I'm not saying that, no.''

He did admit, however, "You can surmise anything you like from what we've said.''

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekAre Phil Hughes' starts strong enough to help the Yankees as they head down the stretch?

The easy supposition is that despite the happy talk in the postgame news conference regarding Hughes' latest effort, the Yankees know that the kind of stuff that barely kept him in the game against the Mariners on Wednesday will get him run out of Fenway Park in October, or The Ballpark at Arlington or Target Field in Minneapolis, for that matter.

And the way you know this is by the way the standards by which the Yankees judged the quality of Hughes' work changed from before the game to after it.

Before the game started, Girardi said he wasn't interested in the numbers on Hughes' final line so much as the quality of his stuff and the ferocity of the swings against it.

"To me, the things I look for are, are they squaring the ball up?'' Girardi said. "That's more important than the numbers or whether he's getting swings and misses.''

After the game, after Hughes had allowed nine hits in six innings and had struck out just three batters, Girardi paid lip service to his pregame yardstick -- "I told you, to me, numbers don't mean anything'' -- and then proceeded to throw the numbers at us.

"He gave up two runs in six innings,'' Girardi said. "I'll sign up for that. They hit some singles off him but he pitched out of some jams and made some big pitches when he needed to.''

And when asked if he thought, barring a trade for a starting pitcher at the deadline, the Yankees had enough starting pitching right now to compete for a World Series championship, Girardi said, "I do. We've gotten this far with them, and they've pitched pretty well.''

Not very convincing, especially when you remember that the Yankees have managed to beat the Boston Red Sox -- not only their main rivals for the AL East title but also the likely final obstacle between the Yankees and a World Series berth -- just once in nine tries.

That is why, as GM Brian Cashman no doubt feverishly works the phones trying to get a big league arm in here before Sunday's 4 p.m. deadline, the Yankees will be welcoming Nova back from his stint in Scranton, which began on July 3 when the club determined he was the sixth man for a job that called for only five bodies.

Despite his 8-4 record and 4.12 ERA, the Yankees determined it was wiser to stick Hughes, fresh off a nearly three-month stint on the DL with what was never fully explained but basically amounted to a misplaced fastball, back into their rotation despite his 13.00-plus ERA in three miserable early season starts.

Now, just four starts into Hughes' second season, the Yankees are ready to give Nova another shot on Saturday in one of the games of their day-night doubleheader with the Baltimore Orioles.

Playing his usual game of hair-splitting, word-parsing and question-evading, Girardi refused to officially name Nova as one of his two starters for Saturday's doubleheader (Bartolo Colon will be the other).

"I'm not gonna name something before it happens,'' he said.

A few minutes later, under questioning about a possible Hughes-Nova competition, he inadvertently let this one slip: "Let's see how Nova does (on Saturday).''

So that cat is out of the bag, and soon, so may be Hughes.

"That's the way it always is,'' he said. "That's the way I look at it. If I go out there every time and I'm not good, there's obviously going to be consequences for that. That's nothing new.''

Hughes went on to say, as his manager did, that this outing was "better,'' but acknowledged he is still trying to "find himself.''

Girardi went out of his way to praise Hughes' battling through jams, and made sure to mention that his team's defense surely made things tough on the bullpen in the seventh inning, when the Mariners erupted for five runs.

But neither Girardi nor Hughes bothered to mention how hard the Mariners seemed to be trying to keep their string of futility alive, especially early in the game, when they stranded a runner on third in the third inning, and somehow managed to load the bases with none out in the fifth but score just one run.

This is a bad team that kept reminding you of how it had managed to go winless for more than three weeks, and still Hughes was in a life-and-death struggle to keep the game close. He left trailing 2-1 but it easily could have, and should have, been more like 6-1.

Once again, he started out with a decent fastball, clocked at 93 mph in the first inning, but gradually cooled down to 90-91. And his biteless curveball spun like a helicopter more often than it broke or dipped. The fact it wasn't belted out of the park a couple of times was on the Mariners, not Hughes.

Asked to assess his performance, here is the best Hughes could come up with: "It was OK. I didn't give up any homers, which was good.''

It was tough to remember that, a year ago, Hughes had just come back from his first All-Star Game and was on his way to an 18-win season.

Now, it's impossible to say where he is headed. But we do know this: Ivan Nova is headed back to the Bronx, and it wouldn't take all that much for him to establish permanent residence here.

"We need him to get back to who he was last year," Girardi said. "Phil Hughes just needs to be Phil Hughes.''

The problem facing the Yankees now is, the Phil Hughes they have may just be the best, and only, Phil Hughes they are ever going to get.

And right now, that doesn't appear to be nearly good enough.

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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