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June 24, 2006

Phil Hughes: June 23rd
by Fabian

(Scroll down and fill out Larry's clutch survey)

So…this is what it feels like to be a fan of the team with the best pitching prospect in baseball. I have to admit, it’s calming. At the same time, it can be nerve-wracking. On this night, I experienced both emotions.

Though the Trenton announcers noted from the first inning that the home plate umpire seemed to have a tight strike zone, this didn’t seem like it would be a problem as Hughes was facing a very weak offensive team and got out of the gates quickly. During the first inning he got 2 strikeouts and a weak groundout on 19 pitches. Despite the relatively high pitch total for the inning, Hughes was dominant as he did get the short end of the stick on a few potential called strike threes; in addition, he also struggled to put away some batters.

In fact, despite the extremely impressive final line of 8-1-0-0-2-10-0 (IP-H-R-ER-BB-K-HR) I think Hughes’ stuff or at least his approach may have been more dominating last time out. While in previous starts during this recent string of dominance, over his last 4 starts Hughes is at 28-13-3-7-33-2, he had begun elevating his fastball as well as getting batters to chase on breaking balls out of the zone, tonight seemed to be all about the fastball. Simply put, the Connecticut hitters were wildly overmatched by Hughes’ fastball. This being the first pitch Hughes establishes in almost all at bats, it quickly became apparent than on this night the best strategy would be to go with good old number 1.

Typically, such a strategy may lead to shorter at bats, but on this night what happened was that Hughes would quickly get to two strikes and then the batter would almost invariably foul off a bunch of pitches, almost all to the opposite field or tapped somewhere around the general home plate area due to getting late swings, and then Hughes would finally catch them for the strikeout. As a result, after 6 innings Hughes had thrown 96 pitches and was in the midst of a no-hitter. At this point, I did not care about the no-hitter and was hoping that Hughes would get taken out of the game, but it was not to be as Bill Masse and the Thunder staff decided to send Hughes back out to the mound to continue his effort.

In the 7th inning Hughes pitched another clean inning on just 9 pitches, but it was not as simple as that. The first pitch of the inning resulted in a fly out, but it was a fly out to the RF warning track. The third and final batter of the inning hit a foul ball home run before grounding out. Since this inning followed 6 innings of weak contact and Hughes was now at 105 pitches and now moved from hoping to assuming that Hughes was out of the game, this was not the case. On his 106th pitch of the game Hughes allowed his first hit, a double grounded past the 3B. Hughes did not come out at this point however, because no one had been warming in the pen. However, during the time it would take for the pitcher, J.B. Cox, to warm up, Hughes would be out of the inning with two ground outs and another strikeout.

In the end, the now 20-year-old (Happy Birthday, Phil) had thrown a total of 112 pitches, 73% for strikes. While I was initially upset at how long Hughes was left in the game, given his position and to a lesser extent his injury history, which IS overblown, I fret daily about Hughes’ health and initially felt the Thunder staff was being reckless. In retrospect and in light of an AIM conversation with Larry, it makes sense to allow him some flexibility above the magical 100 pitch mark when going after something special and as long as the coaching doesn’t regularly extend him. (Fingers crossed) This guy is going to be our ace for years to come and a pitcher in such a position needs to have the ability to reach back on certain outings and give length, the only way to get to be able to do that is to practice on occasion. Now, just don’t trade him.


-During trade discussion season, Hughes is really the only Yankee prospect that should be untouchable. The A-ball guys, for all their potential, are still raw/uncertain and many/most of the AA and above guys don’t project well enough that you should shoot your present day contention in the foot to protect them.

-J.B. Cox was very effective in relief of Hughes, working a quick 1,2,3 ninth. With Dotel’s momentary setback (call me pessimistic, but it doesn’t sound good at all) it’s a wonder the Yankees haven’t promoted Cox to AAA yet in order to try and get him in the ML bullpen at some point.

-For those of you who’ve yet to see Jose Tabata. The owner of that video, formerly 38Special of and PooNani of several other prospect sites, also has a bunch of other videos of Yankee prospects posted that you may want to check out since many of these guys may just be names next to stat lines for you guys.

(Scroll down and fill out Larry's clutch survey)