Phil Hughes says he's ready to return
But the 25-year-old right-hander knows it's not his call.
"Absolutely, if they asked me," Hughes said after throwing 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball during an 88-pitch rehab start for the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees' Double-A affiliate, on Wednesday afternoon. "But I know they won't. I don't make those decisions."
Hughes' latest rehab outing will certainly make the organization's decision a whole lot easier. Facing the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate, he allowed just three hits, walked two and struck out eight -- all via swinging strikes.
"My last two outings stuff-wise have been good," said Hughes, whose fastball velocity fluctuated mostly between 91-94 mph. "Command-wise I didn't necessarily think about what the radar gun said every pitch. I knew my stuff's been good the last month or so. I've just gotta make sure the location's there, and that's the other key, I think."
Hughes struggled with his command in his previous rehab outing for the Thunder last Friday night -- needing 72 pitches to get through 3 1/3 innings -- but he was a lot sharper this time around. Hughes threw 61 of his 88 pitches for strikes, and got into three-ball counts just four times.
"I was throwing a lot more strikes," Hughes said. "I felt more comfortable out there. I felt like mechanics were in-sync and I was able to get over my front side and deliver the baseball clean. The ball coming out of my hand felt pretty good, and I was able to locate, so that was the biggest thing."
More important, his missing fastball velocity appears to have returned. Hughes threw 48 of his 88 pitches -- 54.5 percent -- between 91-94 mph; 18 of those were 93 mph or harder. And for the record, general manager Brian Cashman, vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman and super scout Gene "Stick" Michael all witnessed it -- since they were among the 4,916 in attendance at Waterfront Park.
"I'm really at a point now where I'm pitching full games almost," said Hughes, who was pulled with one out in the seventh and left to a standing ovation. "I threw 88 pitches, and I probably have about 20 more in me on a good day. I'm just trying to help these guys win, and at the same time get ready to go."
Hughes said he didn't feel fatigued at all during the outing, and expects to make one more rehab start before being recalled.
"He looked really good," Cashman said at Yankee Stadium. "Really good. Today was a great day. It was worth the trip. He threw all right. He had good velocity and looked sharp."
Cashman added that the team had yet to decide if Hughes would make another rehab start before joining the Yankees.
"It wouldn't hurt for him to get one more," Cashman said at Yankee Stadium. "Stuff-wise, we're very impressed."
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On Wednesday, Hughes retired the first 10 batters he faced before surrendering a one-out single in the fourth to New Hampshire center fielder Anthony Gose. He didn't have a three-ball count until the fifth, and no Fisher Cat reached farther than second base against him.
"I've always been a guy that doesn't try to be too fine," said Hughes, who got more swinging strikes (20) on Wednesday afternoon than in his previous two rehab starts combined. "I want to attack the zone. If I miss by a little, that's fine. But if I miss by a lot, that becomes a problem. I wasn't perfect, but I threw a lot more strikes than the last time out, and that was a positive sign. I didn't want to fall into deep counts. I wanted to face a lot of hitters and go deep into the game."
Hughes relied mostly on his four-seamer and curveball for most of the game, but as he began to tire he started mixing his cutter and other off-speed pitches in his arsenal.
"I was reading swings for the most part," Hughes said. "They were late on my fastball on the beginning, so I didn't need to show them anything too soft, but in the end I saw them gearing up for the fastball, so I mixed in more cutters and breaking balls. It was just like I would go about any start."
Hughes said he feels a lot more like he did last season than he did in April, when his fastball velocity disappeared and he got continually shelled by the opposition. Hughes was placed on the disabled list on April 15 with inflammation in his right shoulder. At the time, his fastball had been averaging just 89.3 mph in his first three starts, according to FanGraphs.com. With the Yankees, he's 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA in 2011.
"I feel normal, like I did last year, and I can tell by the swings I'm getting," Hughes said. "Earlier in April opposing hitters couldn't wait to get in the box against me, and that wasn't a good feeling. But now it's back to normal, and it feels good. I have to make sure my command is back as well, so that's what I've been focusing on."
Hughes made his first rehab start on June 19 for Class A Staten Island, tossing 61 pitches over 4 1/3 innings. He gave up a home run and three hits.
Hughes still can't explain why his arm became fatigued, but he said it didn't occur because of the way the organization used him. He threw 86 innings -- the majority of them out of the bullpen -- in 2009 before moving back into the starting rotation, winning 18 games and being named to his first American League All-Star team in 2010.
"Sometimes you always want to point the finger, but sometimes there's just not an explanation for injuries," Hughes said. "Sometimes, if something's just not right, it's just not right, whether you handled it the right way or the wrong way or anything like that. I don't second-guess what they did with the pitch count or the innings."
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPN NewYork.com. Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Wallace Matthews and The Associated Press was used in this report.