Going into last night’s matchup I discussed how important a win for Phil Hughes would be. Beating Boston last night would drop the magic number down to 1, it would temporarily quench the torrent of criticism rained down on Joe Girardi by guys like ESPNNY writer Andrew Marchand (who called Girardi “incompetent at best, delusional at worst”, an appellation better suited for Marchand himself), and it would also enable the Yankees to clinch in Toronto the following night, thereby alleviating the need for a Sabathia start on Tuesday. Hughes did not disappoint. In six innings of work, he allowed only 3 hits and 1 earned run, walking 4 and striking out 4. This line actually suggests that Hughes was worse than he was, as two of those walks came in the top of the 7th when Hughes was clearly fatigued and lost his command.
Hughes continued his trend of mixing four pitches throughout the night. The command of the fastball was better than it was in his last outing against Tampa, and he did a much better job driving it to either side of the plate. His curveball was sharp, and it was particularly good on his strikeout of Drew in the top of the first. The pitch didn’t even look like his regular curveball, it had far more horizontal action and was more of a slurvy, 1-8 curve than his typical 12-6 knuckle-curve. You can see the pitch in this clip on MLB.com. He also mixed in the changeup at times to lefties, throwing 9 by my count, a very good sign and an indicator that he will continue to use this tool even in the playoffs. His fastball was very good, and he got seven swinging strikes on it (and one swinging strike on the cutter), which shows how dangerous Hughes is as a pitcher when he has all of his pitches working at the same time. Provided he limits his walks and commands his pitches, Hughes is not an easy pitcher to score runs against.
For that reason, and because of the fact that he has arguably been the team’s second-best starter this season (Pettitte has a claim to this as well, but Hughes has thrown some 50 innings more), Phil Hughes deserves a spot in the ALDS rotation. I’ve written an awful lot about Phil Hughes this season, and the more I learn about him and watch him develop the more confident I become in his ability. To be sure, his results were better earlier in the year. He had more strikeouts and walks and was generally more dominant. But the Phil Hughes we’ve seen lately is one with the command of four pitches and the ability to shut the other team down. In arguably the biggest game of the season and biggest start of his career, Hughes was superb. The excellence of his outing may have been lost on some fans given the frustrating offensive futility against Matsuzaka, but if the team had scored 4 runs the big story this morning would be about Phil Hughes, not Rivera, Rodriguez or Papelbon.
Hughes needs to get a start in the ALDS, and not just in Game 4. As Moshe has outlined, Hughes’ expected range of outcomes is far more preferable to Burnett’s, and he has simply pitched well enough to earn a spot. If the Yankees win the Wild Card they will open the playoffs with two games in Minnesota. Given what we’ve learned about Hughes’ home/road splits and the apparent desire of management to split up Sabathia and Pettitte, I think Hughes should pitch Game 2 in this scenario. If the Yankees win the division and host Texas in the first round, then I’d hope the team would start Sabathia and Pettitte in Games 1 and 2 and Hughes in Game 3 on the road. If they insist on splitting up Sabathia and Pettitte, then Hughes should be the Game 2 starter. He’s been that guy for the team, and I’d trust him in October.