Commentary

Phil's innings limit self-imposed in loss

Hughes can't escape fourth as pitching-depleted pinstripers drop series in Toronto

Updated: August 26, 2010, 12:31 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- Wednesday afternoon, I texted a question to Yankees GM Brian Cashman: "Are you considering relaxing/changing/abolishing innings limit on Phil Hughes if necessary."

His answer was timely, succinct, and it turns out, prophetic: "No need."

How prescient of Cashman to know that later that evening, Hughes would impose his own innings limitation by failing, for the first time all season, to make it out of the fifth inning.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMIPhil Hughes pitched just 3 2/3 innings Wednesday -- but he threw 102 pitches.

In fact, Hughes did not make it out of the fourth inning. His work ended after 3 2/3 innings, in which he threw a whopping 102 pitches, leaving behind a bases-loaded mess for the Yankees' new long reliever, Javier Vazquez, to clean up.

Worse than that, he left his team in a 5-2 hole that it was never able to climb out of.

The Yankees wound up going down, 6-3, to the Blue Jays on Wednesday night, and losing a series, two-of-three, to a team playing out the string, and wasting a rare opportunity to put a game between them and their divisional rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, who got blown out earlier in the day by the L.A. Angels.

But the good news is, just four innings get deducted from Hughes' remaining regular-season innings account, which is believed to have a balance of approximately 30 innings left.

"That's not the way I wanted it to happen, no," Joe Girardi said. "It's still just 3 2/3 innings."

Or 102 pitches, whichever you think is more important, or from the Yankees' standpoint, more detrimental to a young pitcher's arm.

On this night, Girardi preferred to take the position that the brevity of Hughes' workday was more significant than the fact that he had thrown as many pitches as he might have on a night in which he had lasted, say, seven innings. In fact, in only nine of Hughes' previous 23 starts did he throw more pitches than he did in his 3 2/3 innings on Wednesday, and even Girardi could see that this line of reasoning was pretty much going nowhere.

"There's really no silver lining in this," he said. "Obvious, [Hughes] didn't have too good of a night."

Before the game, Girardi had been musing -- fantasizing, as it turned out -- about the possibility of being able to save some of those innings -- believed to be 175, of which Hughes has now thrown 144 1/3 -- by pulling Hughes after five or six, presumably with the Yankees enjoying a big lead, like the nine-run edge they held over the Detroit Tigers in Hughes' most recent outing last Thursday.

"That would be great," Girardi had said. "If you could do it three or four or maybe five times, it adds up, it definitely adds up."

Wednesday night, nothing added up, for Hughes or the Yankees. Again and again, the message board above the outfield flashed the speed of his fastball -- 95 mph, 95 mph, 96 mph. Again and again, he got ahead of the Blue Jays' hitters. Eighteen times he had two strikes on a batter -- and 12 of them still wound up reaching base.

"It just seemed like there were a lot of walks, a lot of foul balls and I wasn't able to put guys away," Hughes said. "We can't have that, especially when we're trying to win a series here."

In the first inning, Vernon Wells got a two-strike fastball from Hughes clocked at 95, and ripped it between the outfielders in right-center for an RBI triple. In the third, Wells got into an 0-2 fastball, this one timed at 93, and hit it so hard it would have shattered Moose Jaw, a two-run homer that extended the Jays' lead to 4-0.

And that was the story of Hughes' night, a night in which he could get ahead of just about anyone and still manage to put almost no one behind him. He ended up walking five, matching the season high he set in his first start of the season, and allowing five runs to swell his ERA, once a microscopic 1.38, to a season-high 4.12.

With the rotation depleted by the injury to Andy Pettitte, the maddening inconsistency of A.J. Burnett, and the unsettling inexperience of Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova, Hughes was thought to be the one Yankees starter not named CC whom the team could depend on every five days.

Now, the Yankees have to hope that what happened Wednesday night was a one-time occurrence, and not a continuation of a troubling patch from late June right into early August when he surrendered nine home runs in losing three of five starts.

"He's had a pretty good year, I mean, he has 15 wins," Girardi said. "It was just one of those nights. Pitchers have them."

The problem is, at this point of the season the Yankees can't afford too many of those kinds of nights from one of the few starting pitchers they still have complete faith in.

Things might have been different for Hughes had Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter been able to execute a forceout on Wells' hot grounder up the middle with the bases loaded in the fourth, a bang-bang play that went Toronto's way, but led to only one run. It turned out to be Hughes' last batter of the game, but by that point, the damage had already been done.

"I have 100 pitches to work with and I can't get through four?" a disgusted Hughes said. "I didn't do my job as a starter and that's pretty hard to swallow."

Earlier in the day, I had spoken to Cashman about rumors the Yankees were trying to make a waiver deal with the Dodgers for right-handed starter Hiroki Kuroda. He said they were baseless, groundless and needless. "What we got is what we're going with," he said. "I like the team we have. Besides, I would be hard-pressed to find a guy out there who can pitch better for us than Dustin Moseley has."

But that stance presumes that Pettitte, scheduled to throw a bullpen Friday in Chicago, returns to form in time not only to shore up the rotation for the postseason, but to ensure there even will be a postseason.

Girardi admitted that he was "eager" to see Pettitte throw on Friday, which would allow the Yankees to put him on a program that in a best-case scenario leads him back to the mound by mid-September.

"I think it's extremely important," Girardi said of the bullpen session, in which Pettitte is expected to throw no more than 25 pitches. "I think there's anxiety on Andy's part and everyone's part, because every time he's tried to really push off, he's felt a little tug. And if he's able to really push off on Friday, it will tell me that he's healed. If not, that would be a pretty big setback."

It could mean the difference between winning the division and settling for the wild card, which in turn could mean the difference between another run at a World Series title or a potential first-round exit.

As always, it's all about the pitching, and right now, even with Phil Hughes saving a few of his precious innings, it is not at all clear whether the Yankees will have enough.

GAME NOTES: Vazquez did well in his new role, getting Adam Lind to pop out on a curveball to escape Hughes' bases-loaded jam, and allowing just two hits in his 4 1/3 innings, one of them a long home run by Aaron Hill. Most encouragingly, his fastball hit 91 several times. ... Until their abortive ninth-inning rally, the Yankees' offense was basically Marcus Thames, who doubled in the second and crushed a two-run homer in the fourth off Brett Cecil, who went eight innings for the victory. ... Eduardo Nunez came through with an RBI single in the ninth off Toronto closer Kevin Gregg and the Yankees wound up loading the bases, but Curtis Granderson's bid for a go-ahead grand slam ended at the edge of the warning track in center. ... Nick Swisher, a late scratch with stiffness in his left knee caused by fouling a ball off his own leg Tuesday night, guaranteed he will be ready to play Friday. ... Probable pitching matchup for Game 1 of the three-game series with the White Sox: Burnett (9-11, 4.80) vs. RHP Freddy Garcia (10-5, 5.08). First pitch 8:10 p.m. NY time.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees 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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