It has been a frustrating 2008 season for Phil Hughes, the young ace-to-be of the Yankees pitching staff, who spent much of it on the disabled list after struggling through an abysmal April in which he went 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in six starts. The 22-year-old right-hander finally got back on the mound in August with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, finding his groove in the International League playoffs where he allowed only one run in 13 innings while striking out 23. Fully recovered from injuries to his hamstring, oblique, and ribs, Hughes is scheduled to make his first big-league start since April 29 tonight, when he toes the rubber against the White Sox.
David Laurila: What has the 2008 season been like for you?
Phil Hughes: It’s had its ups and downs, just like last year. The downs would be how the season started and the injuries. It was tough, having to miss so much time, because you’re watching the team go out there every day to compete and you can’t be there with them. It’s been disheartening at times, but you learn to deal with it more than anything. Now I feel great, but at the same time there’s not much of the season left. But I will have an opportunity to go play in the Arizona Fall League, which will be great for me because I’ll be able to get some innings in. I’m feeling good, so things are looking up right now.
DL: Have there been any mechanical concerns, coming off of your injuries?
PH: I had some issues after the hamstring, just with my landing leg and things like that, but I feel like I’ve squared away those things, and I haven’t had any injury repercussions from that.
DL: Has your velocity been impacted in any way?
PH: It kind of fluctuates, but it’s relatively the same. Some days I’ll throw harder than other days, and lately I’ve actually been throwing harder than I have the last couple of years. That’s always a positive, and it’s probably because of all the time off. I had spring training, but then I had so much time off that I’m feeling fresh again. That could be it, or it could be the fact that I’m getting older and stronger. I guess it’s kind of tough to tell.
DL: How different of a pitcher are you from a year ago?
PH: I feel like I’ve come a long way. You’re always refining things and trying to put different things together. I think that scrapping my slider and going to the cutter is going to be big for me. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the last year-maybe not as much as I’d have liked to, as far as getting on the mound with a lot of innings, but as far as just learning, I’ve come a long way.
DL: When I first talked to you two years ago, you cited Dave Eiland as being a big influence on your development. Is that still the case?
PH: Oh, yeah. He’s obviously at the big-league level now, and I’m down here [in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre], so there aren’t as many things I can work on with him. But in the time I did have up there this year we were constantly working on things. He’s been instrumental in everything I’ve done up to this point, and I’m hoping to get back up there as soon as possible.
DL: What are your thoughts on Yankee Stadium?
The new one is going to be beautiful. I didn’t really play that much in the old Yankee Stadium, but it will be nice to move into a new home. I know that for a lot of the guys, especially the ones who were on those World Series teams, it’s going to be tough for them to leave, but the new facilities will be great.
DL: Outside of Yankee Stadium, where have you most enjoyed pitching?
PH: My favorite place to pitch, at least conditions-wise, is probably Tampa Bay. You always know what you’re going to get weather-wise, and the ball doesn’t really fly that well in there. It’s always going to be 72 degrees with the right humidity in the air, so probably the best place to pitch would be Tampa [Bay].
DL: How about for atmosphere?
PH: Boston, for obvious reasons. It’s always a sellout, and the fans are always all over you. I’d have to pick Fenway.
DL: How important is ballpark atmosphere?
PH: It’s cool when you’re just sitting around on the days you’re not pitching. But for me, when I’m out there I don’t really take in much of anything. It seems like the game goes by in a flash, so you don’t really even notice the atmosphere. It’s maybe a little different for other players, but for me, I’m in a zone; it’s me, the catcher, and maybe a couple of other small things I don’t even realize are going on.
DL: How different do you feel on the mound when you’re in a groove?
PH: For me, as a starting pitcher, you have so much down time between starts. You might feel like you’re in a groove, but really it is four days off, four days off, four days off. You like to kind of keep your routine the same when you’re pitching well, because you think that it’s going to somehow mean something as far as your next start, but I think it’s more mentality than anything. When pitchers get in a groove, it isn’t the same as hitters. Hitters can feel a groove because they get up there three or more times every day and sometimes they just see the ball better; I know from high school that can sometimes be the case. But with pitchers, when you find guys that say they’re in a groove, it’s more of a mental thing.
DL: How about when you’re struggling? For instance, does the ball feel any different?
PH: That can sometimes be a factor. When things are going really rough you might feel like you don’t have any idea where the ball is going, or it feels like a beach ball in your hand and nothing seems to be going right. But aside from that, it’s kind of like the groove thing, where it’s more of a mental deal.
DL: What do you see when you look in from the mound?
PH: At first you focus on the glove and the sign that you’re being given. After that, it is whatever kind of breathing you do, coming set, and then repeating your mechanics and going. Basically, your eyes are just on the target. It might be different for different guys, but that’s kind of how it is for me; I’m relaxed and not really zoned in until I come up and go.
DL: What is your demeanor in the dugout between innings?
PH: I’m not one of those guys who no one can come near between innings. I kind of take between innings to relax a little bit; I don’t want to stay in the non-stop ‘locked’ zone. That can probably wear you out a little faster, so I’ve always taken the approach that when I get out there it’s go time. I can turn it on and shut it off pretty quickly, so on the bench I relax, talk about the last inning and what we can do from that point forward. Then I go from there.
DL: How about your demeanor before and after games?
PH: I’m kind of in the middle. Before the game, I don’t go around talking to everybody, but at the same time I’m not locked up and quiet. Days I pitch, I show up at the field a lot later, and it’s basically just doing my pre-game prep, warming up, and pitching. It’s really only that three- or four-hour stretch that I’m in a zone. That night I’ll kind of think about some of the things I did right and did wrong, and after that it doesn’t take me too long to wind down.
DL: You pitched in the postseason last year. Do you look at that as being the highlight of your professional career up to this point?
PH: So far, yeah. Obviously it was a minor stint, because it was in relief, but because of the stage and all of the pressure that was mounted with that, it was definitely the most I’ve had to deal with. It was certainly the biggest stage I’ve ever pitched on.
DL: Your name came up in last winter’s Johan Santana trade rumors. Looking back, what was that like for you?
PH: It’s kind of funny. My name has always been tossed around, but that was probably the biggest one I’ve ever been involved in. But every year it’s something different; some aren’t as newsworthy as others because of the names that are involved, but I’ve kind of gotten used to the whole trade rumor deal. It’s been there ever since I got drafted.
DL: You came into this season with high expectations. Do you feel that you’re under more pressure, or less pressure, now that you’ve hit this bump in the road?
PH: It’s probably equal. There are always expectations, they just kind of come in different circumstances. Whether it’s being a highly-touted guy or a guy who hasn’t lived up to expectations so far, there’s always that pressure to perform. It’s always going to be there, especially in New York.
DL: What do you think of the New York media?
PH: I wouldn’t say that we have it easy, but we’re fortunate in that we grow up in the minor leagues having a lot of resources that teach us how to deal with the media, so it’s not a big shocker when we get up there. And we deal with the spring training media, which at times can be even worse than during the season. It’s something you come through the minor leagues dealing with, really.
DL: Do you find much of a difference between the New York media and the national media? Are their expectations of you any different/
PH: Sort of, but you never really get the expectations. Unless you read the papers, you don’t get that sense of what is expected from you. I’ve never been a guy who comes into the clubhouse after a game having read what one particular writer had to say. When they’re asking you questions, they never voice their opinions; they only voice them through their papers. I feel like the New York writers, because they cover the team every day, they ask more specific questions than the national media, who will ask you broader and more general questions about this or that. I feel that’s the only real difference.
DL: Can you tell us something about Phil Hughes that most people don’t know?
PH: Well, the New York media kind of squeezes everything they can out of you, so I’m not sure that there’s really anything. I guess that one thing that is kind of funny is that a lot of New York fans, if you play for the Yankees, they assume that you live in, and you’re from, New York. I’ll run into people on the street and they’ll ask where I’m from, and I’ll tell them California, and they’re like shocked. Or they’ll ask where my house is in New York, and I’ll say that I stay in an apartment during the season and then go back to California in the offseason. Maybe I can’t say that it’s a lot, but I have heard it on more than one occasion. Some people are shocked to learn that not all New York Yankees live and stay in New York.
DL: Any final thoughts-maybe something you’d like everyone to know?
PH: I always used to be called Philip, and I finally got that squared away after a few years. I’ve always been Phil, but when you’re drafted it always comes up as your full given name, and people take that right out and assume that’s what you’re called. It’s been kind of a slow transition, but I think I’ve finally got that squared away. Now I’m Phil Hughes, again.