Another cold night, another close battle, another game won for the Yankees with good young pitching. This time it was Phil Hughes’ opportunity to shine, and the twenty-one-year-old did not disappoint.
“Wow… to be twenty-one again,” Johnny Damon would say during his post-game interview, wide-eyed and giddy with unseen memories. He would go on to say how proud he is of Phil for the hard work the rookie put in this past off-season, efforts which translated into a dominant first outing. Hughes, the second youngest player currently on a Major League roster, allowed just two earned runs through six, sharp, economical innings of work, striking out four in the process.
Damon concluded his interview with a sentiment that must have been hanging in the air around every locker in the Yankees clubhouse. In truth, that while having Johan Santana would have been a nice addition to the rotation, having an “ace-in-the-making” is even better.
Solid words from a class-act veteran who now, as time continues to pass unabated, can fully appreciate the hope and possibility young, power arms bring to a ball-club. After all, if it only took money and offense to win championships, the New York Yankees would never lose.
At the center of a whirlwind this past winter – the proposed Santana trade to the Yankees – Phil Hughes was the rumored cornerstone of a package the Yankees would have to surrender to complete the deal, along with centerfielder Melky Cabrera and a couple of prospects. Hank Steinbrenner, the newly appointed Boss with a penchant for talking candidly to the press, was itching to pull the trigger. One could almost imagine the conversations between father and son, where sagely advice honed in on the wisdom, adrenaline, and pride of pulling-off the biggest free agent trade of the winter, every winter. That’s just the way things are supposed to be in the Bronx, am I right son?
But Brian Cashman, the little man with the giant plan for returning the Yankees to postseason glory, namely through a combination of youth, pitching, and fiscal responsibility, won the first of what may be many battles in the trenches for his boys. Neither Hughes or Cabrera, or Ian Kennedy for that matter, was going anywhere, even if it meant passing on a twenty-nine-year-old ace that many consider the best pitcher in all of baseball. Cashman has a plan, a well-rooted tree that may not bare fruit overnight, and for having the guts to put his job on the line simply to stay true to his plan, I commend him for his efforts.
And Hughes commends him for the chance he’s been given, or at least he pitched last night like he does. He pitched like a young stud with a couple years of experience, not one. He pitched like he had something to say, never once looking scared, in awe of his surroundings, or like the much-speculated pressure that comes with NOT being traded for Johan Santana was getting to him.
If anything, it was fueling him.
And that, my fellow Yankee fans, is called makeup. That intangible, limitlessly valuable, gift from the gods which cannot be bought, sold, or traded for, is called self-confidence, and it makes all the difference in the world.
Hughes took the mound last night like he belonged in that spot, at that precise moment, much like Joba would do later in the game, and Kennedy will do tonight. He believed he was the pitcher we’ve been reading about for three years now. The same pitcher who was throwing a no-no thru seven last year, before his hamstring tightened up and decided to betray him. The same pitcher who shut down the Indians in relief of a Rocket, securing the Yankees only postseason win of 2007.
To me, personally, he was the same pitcher I traveled to Trenton, New Jersey to watch with my dad, one of those few, sublime experiences you rarely get with your old man once you are your own man, with your own wife, children, and thirty-year mortgage. In a very real sense, Phil Hughes represents a lot more than talent to Yankee fans – he represents hope – and this kid has the presence and maturity to prove right everyone who believes in him today.
He looks like he belongs on that mound because he does, plain and simple.
One, two, three went the Blue Jays in the first, with both Matt Stairs and Alex Rios caught staring at perfection for strike three. The kid walked purposefully off the mound, head down, the brim of his hat a little straighter than that of the veterans, because that’s what you do when you’re twenty-one.
One, two, three went the Blue Jays in the second, on seven pitches no less.
One, two, three went the Blue Jays in the third, and by now the Stadium itself was smiling. Finally, it whispered to the blanketed crowd. Finally, a kid who knows how to pitch. A kid who knows how to attack the zone. I am happy.
Hughes encountered his first real test in the fourth inning, when The Pest himself, David Eckstein, blooped a soft base hit down the right-field line that turned into a double. Matt Stairs followed with a ground-out that moved Eckstein to third, and then the newest and youngest Yankee-killer, Alex Rios, extended his twenty-something-game hitting streak against the Yanks by ripping a single into the gap, scoring Eckstein. Okay, one run on the board, how is our kid going to respond?
During the next at-bat against Vernon Wells, Rios stole second then moved to third when Jose Molina’s throw went through to center-field. Runner at third now with only one out, Wells at the plate, so what do you do, kid? Well, Hughes dropped a steady diet of twelve-to-six curveballs on Wells, painted a few corners with mid-nineties heat, then snapped off another breaking ball for a huge, swinging strikeout. When the Big Hurt came up next, the same, mechanical, powerful attack ensued, and Frank Thomas was caught looking at an inside screamer, end of the inning.
Not bad kid. Not bad at all.
Hughes would give up another run in the fifth on a two-out walk, double, and infield single, but that was all for the night. He finished his evening with a one, two, three sixth, and the Yankee bats came alive for him in the bottom of the frame to tie the game at two on a bases-loaded, no-outs passed ball, and a sacrifice fly from Giambi. All in all, it was a strong, controlled, and confident no-decision that did not go unnoticed by anyone. Quite the opposite, I would venture to say.
In another strong, encouraging performance by the bullpen, new lefty Billy Traber came in to face old lefty Lyle Overbay in the top of the seventh, and promptly struck him out. A rejuvenated, long-haired Brian Bruney finished off the frame by throwing gas on top of his strikes, getting a ground out to second and a weak fly ball to right.
Not bad gentlemen. Not bad at all.
Joba worked a scoreless top of the eighth, giving up a single and striking out one, but showing more and more signs that the Joba who ignited New York in the second half of last season is the real deal. Of particular note, the brim of his hat is even straighter than that of Phil Hughes, but that is to be expected, right, given his cult-hero status? Seriously, has anyone ever seen someone take over the collective conscious of a city so quickly, and with such an exclamation point? Maybe the Captain, Derek Jeter, in 1996, but it’s a close, close call.
At any rate, in the ensuing bottom of the eighth, Joe Girardi finally got the chance to show off his small-ball mentality by bunting Damon with Melky at first and no outs. Damon reached safely when Blue Jays pitcher Scott Downs mishandled the ball up the line, and The New Joe put on the bunt again with Jeter in the very next at-bat. Derek, who looked safe from every angle but the one the umpire must have had, successfully advanced the runners, and the strategy paid off quickly when Bobby Abreu punched an arcing single to center to score the go ahead run. In just the third game of his first season at the helm, a defining moment for Girardi, who sits comfortable, if not eager to prove his worth, in the shadow of Joe Torre.
Not bad skip. Not bad at all.
One run is all the incomparable Mariano Rivera would need, even if Vernon Wells made it to third with two outs. Quietly, defiantly, Mo pumped his patented cutter over the inside corner of the plate to freeze Aaron Hill in his cleats, and seal the first series of the season for the Yankees.
Two 3-2 wins in three days, with solid performances by both the starters and the bullpen, just like old times. The bats will warm up when the weather does, but nothing is warmer than seeing your hard-fought plan put into action, and succeed.
It’s early, it’s April, but for the present moment, Brian Cashman is feeling as warm as can be.