Commentary

Hughes suffering from lack of command

Young starter's control problems surface at inopportune time for Yankees

Updated: July 21, 2010, 10:34 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Baseball managers have an all-purpose term for when a pitcher suddenly becomes ineffective and nobody has the slightest idea why.

The term is "lack of command," and so far this year, it has applied to -- in order -- Javier Vazquez, A.J. Burnett and now Phil Hughes.

On Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, Hughes got belted around by the Los Angeles Angels to the tune of nine hits, six runs and two more home runs in five innings of work. He also walked three batters. And aside from a 1-2-3 first inning, Hughes seemed to be in desperate trouble whenever he was on the mound.

The Angels whipped the Yankees 10-2 when all was said and done. And afterward, Joe Girardi dipped into his bag of baseball cliches and came up with Old Faithful.

"Just lack of command," he said. "He didn't have command of his fastball, which caused him to get beat on his cutter. Didn't have a lot of command of that, either."

Phil Hughes
William Perlman/US PresswirePhil Hughes' ERA rose to 3.99 after Tuesday's loss to the Angels.

To make the cliche-fest complete, Girardi wrapped his summation of Hughes' night's work as follows: "When you don't have command, it's hard to compete at a high level."

And when you don't score as many runs as the other guys, you lose.

None of this served any real purpose to explain why Hughes, who was so dominant over the first month of the season (5-0 with a 1.38 ERA on May 12 and a near no-hitter to his credit) has been so dismal for most of the past month.

After allowing just four home runs in his first 11 starts, Hughes now has surrendered nine in his past six. Even more baffling, all 13 of the homers he has surrendered were at Yankee Stadium. "It doesn't make sense," Girardi said. "Maybe he leaves more pitches up here."

All we know is, despite the top three pitchers in the Yankee rotation's 35 wins, the Yankees have no real command over the American League East race.

Even with the second-place Tampa Bay Rays blowing a lead and losing in 13 innings to the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees have a mere 2 1/2 game-lead in the division, and now two of those three starters they have been relying on are either injured (Pettitte) or suddenly Hughes-less.

"It's really tough. It's really tough," said Hughes, whose record fell to 11-3 and ERA rose to 3.99. "If you know what the problem is, a lot of times you can correct it, but a lot of times you just don't know. The ball's not going where I want it to go."

Specifically, Hughes' cutter was not going where he wanted it to go, which is down, and the rule of thumb with a cutter is, what goes up must come down, and usually in the seats.

"When it's up, it's flat and it's pretty easy to hit," Hughes said. "And it was up, all night."

In the fourth, Hughes left a cutter up to Maicer Izturis, and when it came down, it was in the right-field seats. In the sixth, he left another one up to Mike Napoli, and that one streaked like a heat-seeking missile into the right-field bleachers.

But it wasn't only the long ball that resulted in a short night for Hughes. Despite being staked to a 2-0 first-inning lead, five of the first 10 batters Hughes faced got base hits, and if not for a base-running blunder by Torii Hunter in the second inning, he might not have made it as far as he did -- which was two batters into the sixth.

"I think he's trying to do too much at times and not trusting [his stuff] a little bit," Jorge Posada said. "A couple of pitches were up in the zone, and that's from not executing a little bit."

There is no shortage of theories as to why Hughes has gone from extraordinary to less than ordinary -- and right now, two of the most popular are centered on his workload.

In his first full season as a starter, the 24-year-old Hughes now has thrown 106 innings -- 20 more than his previous season high -- and there still are three months of baseball games to play before the postseason arrives.

The Yankees have been careful about limiting Hughes' workload. He is believed to be on a 175-inning limit for the season -- although the Yankees refuse to confirm the number -- and Girardi already has skipped him once in the rotation in order to keep him on that pace.

Before the game, the manager insisted that despite Pettitte's injury and the team's need for a little extra out of the rest of the staff, nothing about Hughes' workload would change. "Those two things are independent of each other," he said.

After the game, he said pretty much the same thing, with one alteration: "He's on a limitation and we have to respect that, but we may have to change what he does between starts."

In any event, Hughes' sudden loss of command could not have come at a worse time. Pettitte is on the DL and probably will be out until August with a groin strain, and A.J. Burnett continues to have his own command issues, over his stuff and his emotions.

Suddenly, a staff that was almost an embarrassment of quality pitchers looks like it is short an arm or two. The Yankees brought up Jonathan Albaladejo from Scranton earlier in the day to take Pettitte's roster spot, but what they need right now is another starter with -- dare we say it? -- command.

"We'll get this ironed out," Girardi said.

How he plans to do that, however, is a secret he's not ready to divulge. Girardi is in command of the Yankees -- not of Phil Hughes' pitches.

That, Hughes will have to regain on his own.

GAME NOTES: Girardi was ejected for the third time this season for arguing a close play at first involving Mark Teixeira, who along with first-base coach Mick Kelleher, argued vehemently with ump Paul Emmel. Girardi took up the cause and got tossed after Bruce Dreckman joined the fray. "I've been tossed nine times as a Yankee and I'll be the first to tell you I deserved eight of them," Girardi said. "I didn't deserve this one. I didn't say anything to get thrown out." The same crew tossed Girardi in Toronto in June for arguing a strike call. "I don't know if it's because of the run-in we had in Toronto," he said. Replays, incidentally, indicated Teixeira was out. ... Nick Swisher hit his 17th homer of the year in the first inning, and the Yankees looked ready to run starter Sean O'Sullivan -- recalled by the Angels earlier in the day from the Salt Lake Bees -- out of the building after Alex Rodriguez doubled in the gap. But O'Sullivan, using what Jorge Posada called "an overpowering changeup," held the Yankees hitless for the next five innings. They didn't get another hit until A-Rod's single with two out in the eighth. ... After his two-hit game Sunday, Derek Jeter took another collar, going 0-for-4 before Girardi sent Ramiro Pena up to hit for him in the ninth. Jeter's average is down to .268. ... Wednesday afternoon's pitching matchup: RHP Javier Vazquez (7-7, 4.45) versus RHP Joel Pineiro (10-6, 3.95), with the first pitch scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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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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