- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
- 0 Shares
OAKLAND, Calif. -- There were 30,000 pairs of eyes on the baseball and not one of them belonged to Phil Hughes.
That, in a nutshell, is what very well might have stood between Hughes and a slice of baseball immortality -- his inability to locate a ball literally right under his nose.
That, in fact, was the only ball Hughes failed to locate all night long.
For seven innings, he was Philth Hughes, throwing the nastiest fastballs and cutters any of his teammates could ever remember seeing him throw, putting the ball exactly where he wanted to, and setting down the Oakland Athletics one by one, three by three, inning after inning, the only blemish a four-pitch walk to Daric Barton, the second batter of the game.
He had set down the next 20 batters, struck out a career-high 10, and now stood just six outs shy of throwing a no-hitter.
And then, Eric Chavez got his bat on a fastball, the ball took a hop off the grass in front of Hughes, smashed into the fleshy part of his left forearm, caromed off his chest and -- to Hughes, at least -- disappeared.
And while literally everyone in the ballpark stared and screamed and pointed, Hughes was vainly searching the skies for a baseball that was lying right there at his feet.
"I'm yelling, 'It's in front of you, it's in front of you,'" Mark Teixeira recalled.
"I'm screaming, 'Down! Down! Down!,'" said Jorge Posada.
"We were all yelling," Joe Girardi said. "But sometimes the last place you look is right in front of you."
There was no guarantee, of course, that had Hughes spotted the ball in time and threw out Chavez he would have gone on to complete the no-hitter, only that for at least one more batter, it would have lived on.
And in the overall scheme of things, it really didn't matter, because the Yankees held on to win, 3-1, despite some anxious moments from their two most reliable relievers, Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera.
The important thing, of course, was that the Yankees had won again, and for the sixth straight time and the fifth consecutive series, and for the fourth time against a team that was expected to present a challenge to their defense of the World Championship they won last year.
But oh, for that agonizing moment, one of baseball's most elusive and impressive accomplishments was lying right there, if only Hughes had been able to pick it up.
"To have it end that way was kind of a bummer," Hughes said. "Not the way you want to give up a no-hitter, but that's the way it goes."
Hughes had come this close before, of course, in the second start of his career in what seems like a lifetime ago. That was on May 1, 2007, the opponent was the Texas Rangers and Hughes was cruising along, hitless into the seventh inning when suddenly, he felt a twinge in his hamstring -- while pitching to a guy named Mark Teixeira, by the way -- and dropped out of sight until August.
In many ways, his career hasn't been the same since. He had to win his place in this starting rotation, the final spot available, after a spring training competition with four other guys, but when he pitches the way he did Wednesday night, it makes you wonder what the point of the competition was in the first place.
"That's as good as it gets," Girardi said after Hughes' dominant performance in which he was credited with 7 1/3 innings, 10 strikeouts, two walks and one run, which scored when Chamberlain came in and surrendered an RBI single to pinch hitter Jake Fox two batters after Hughes departed.
After working all spring on adding a changeup to his repertoire, Hughes did it solely with two kinds of fastballs, his four-seamer that hit speeds of up to 96 mph, and his cutter, that darted toward hitters' ankles and left them flailing at the dirt. He mixed in a handful of curves, but for the most part, it was a night of heat, heat and more heat.
"He had an overpowering fastball," Posada said. "The ball was really jumping out of his hand."
Hughes got all the help he needed from his offense in the fourth inning, when Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano strung back-to-back triples together off Ben Sheets, followed by a Posada ground out. That was all the Yankees scoring until Brett Gardner singled home a ninth-inning run to provide a bit of breathing room, and still the Yankees had to hold their breath through a ninth in which Rivera allowed a runner to get to third before throwing one of his patented chainsaws to Kevin Kouzmanoff, sawing off his bat and inducing a game-ending liner to center.
But the story was Hughes, who although technically the fifth starter in the rotation turned in the most dominant performance of the young season, better even than CC Sabathia's flirtation with a no-hitter against the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth game.
That one needed several great plays in the field to keep it going. This one needed only one freak play to shut it down. And unlike Sabathia's effort, which according to Girardi was destined to end after eight innings, no-hitter or not, Hughes, who had thrown only 87 pitches through seven innings, was going to get the chance to finish.
"If he doesn't give up the hit," Girardi said, "we let him keep going."
As Hughes left the mound, he spotted his parents, who had driven up from their home in Orange County to see him pitch, sitting behind the Yankees dugout.
"I don't know how they got such good seats," he said, "but I'm glad I at least gave them something to root for."
Like everyone else in the ballpark, they, too, were pointing and shouting at the baseball. But the one guy in the park who needed to see it most of all had no idea where it was.
"I guess all you can do now is fantasize about it," Hughes said. "Because it's probably not going to happen again."
Not like that, anyway.
Girardi said he expected neither Chamberlain nor Rivera, both of whom pitched both Tuesday and Wednesday, would be available for Thursday afternoon's series finale. Asked if that meant Sabathia would be on a longer than usual leash, Girardi just laughed. "It means all of our other guys are going to have to step up." ... The last time the Yankees had back-to-back triples was in 2007 and the names were Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera.
Phil Hughes had a date with history sitting, literally, right under his nose.