'From the Pressbox'
By Ernie Palladino
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Well, isn't this a fortuitous turn of events?
Phil Hughes, on the firing line, turned in 6 2/3 innings of a great start.
That hasn't been seen this year. And it may not have been enough to save Hughes from bullpen duty as a seventh-inning or setup man behind David Robertson once Andy Pettitte arrives.
But the fact that Hughes came up with his first gem of the year will make Joe Girardi's decision just a little harder. And that's good news for the Yankees, if only because quality starts have been too few and far between from the pinstriped rotation.
The move, though, might still be to put the hard-throwing Hughes in the bullpen. It just makes sense.
With Robertson closing, Rafael Soriano going the eighth, and Hughes capable of pitching the seventh, and even that one or two-out slice of the sixth, the Yanks can put up three straight hard-throwers against the opposition in the late innings. And if future rainouts ever create the issue of needing six starters, Hughes could always come out for a spot start, now confident that his final starting appearance -- or at least next-to-final start should the Yanks decide to keep Pettitte down for one more Triple-A outing -- showed not only late velocity but decent location. He was clocking 94 and 95 in the last few of his 116-pitch outing, and he moved the ball around effectively.
It mattered little that Hughes' final toss to catcher Humberto Quintero, over the heart of the plate, disappeared over the left-center field fence. He'd done his job, and he looked comfortable doing it in the 10-4 victory. Of course, six runs in the third often helps the mindset of someone searching for just his second win of the season, especially when four of those came clumped off a grand slam from the struggling Robbie Cano. He's not used to that this year, as his losing outings tended to coincide with offensive outages.
Hughes was fluid, just throwing easy into the seventh, seemingly unconcerned about being too fine with his fastball and occasional breaking pitch. There were good signs all over the outing, from his seven strikeouts to his three-hit performance.
So Girardi at this point would be safe in whatever decision he makes on Hughes' future responsibilities. If Pettitte proves effective, then having Hughes in the bullpen will only bulk up an already solid back-end grouping. Though Robertson may never approach Rivera's long-term efficiency, he can still be a strong closer. He already shows some similarities with the great closer, as Rivera served as a fantastic prelude to John Wetteland at the beginning of his Yankees career. When Rivera finally took over the closer role in 1997, he came out with 43 saves, and the rest was history.
Robertson could follow the same path. Perhaps not in terms of statistics, but in terms of team morale. His overall ability to throw a fastball past hitters can convince his teammates that the fate of the late-inning bullpen was not destroyed when Rivera's ACL went "Pop."
Add a newly-confident Hughes to the front of that lineup, or even for the eighth inning should Soriano grow inconsistent, and the Yanks will still be in fine fettle there. And should Girardi decide Hughes had saved himself with Sunday's performance, at least he'll have a young starter who could well have turned a corner on a very, very slow start.
Hughes put Girardi in a win-win situation.
Now it's up to him to build on things. And that can be done just as well in the bullpen as in the starting rotation.
Would Hughes be a better fit as a starter or reliever? Make your case below!
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