October 1, 2011
ALDS: Door Ajar for Yankees' Hughes?
Sitting in on the press conferences of managers Jim Leyland and Joe Girardi for the third time in about 24 hours, one gets the sense that neither they nor their players are as fazed by the rain-induced schedule juggling as those of us covering the series. "This is not a crisis, this is postseason baseball," said Leyland on Saturday afternoon.
With Leyland having already committed to returning Game One starter Justin Verlander to the hill for Monday's Game Three, all eyes are on Girardi, who has yet to go that far regarding CC Sabathia. "I'm going to pitch Freddy [Garcia] tomorrow, then we'll go from there. I'l check with CC as I said, each day, to see how he feels. It's very possible CC would pitch on Monday. But I still want to check with him. I mean, right now we look at it, it could be A.J. [Burnett], it could be [Phil] Hughes."
Hughes' name hadn't surfaced as an option this until this afternoon. The 25-year-old righty had a season perhaps even more disappointing than Burnett's, as he was tattooed to the tune of a double-digit ERA in three April starts where he showed diminished velocity. He spent two and a half months on the disabled list with shoulder weakness, and wobbled through 11 starts (and one relief appearance) with a 4.67 ERA and a mediocre 6.1 strikeouts per nine, though he did keep the ball in the park well enough to keep his FIP at 3.96 during that span. Of those 11 starts, seven were quality starts, but three were disaster starts, and he pitched past the sixth inning just once. Back inflammation — the flareup of an old herniated disc from 2004 — limited him to just two appearances after September 12, both of them in a relief role, and the Yankees appeared to commit to him remaining in the bullpen for the postseason.
Before yesterday's game, I asked Girardi whether he envisioned using Hughes in a long-man role or as a bridge to his late-inning trio of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera. "I think I can do either just because he is built up, but he is used to pitching short. In '09 he did it for us. I wouldn't hesitate to do that."
"Built up" is a relative term. The longer of Hughes' two late-September relief appearances was just 36 pitches and 1.2 innings. Presumably he coul give the Yankees a few innings as a long man, but it's difficult to imagine the team getting anything close to 100 pitches out of him. More likely, he could wind up as the lead man in what might amount to a bullpen game or a pseudo-tandem start with Burnett. Hughes had just one appearance against the Tigers this year, getting tagged for five runs in four innings on April 3, his first start of the season. Burnett made two starts against the Tigers, allowing three runs in five innings with six strikeouts on April 2, and then allowing five runs (two earned) in seven innings in Detroit on May 5. That both pitchers have gone through considerable setbacks since then only makes the task of choosing the Game Four starter harder. Furthermore, the possibility of either being used before then — particularly with Saturday night's forecast for more rain — trumps that. "“I think you worry about today’s game today,” said Girard. “You worry about tomorrow’s game tomorrow. That’s what you do.”
Bottom line: Girardi may have opened the door to starting Hughes but if so, it's cracked open just barely, and Burnett remains the better bet to take the ball.