Derek Jeter's quest for 3,000 will, unrealistically, take a backseat to another New York Yankees moment tonight. This evening, all eyes of the Yankee Universe will be focused on Phil Hughes return to the mound when the Yankees meet the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Hughes' performance tonight might determine his chances of rejoining the Yankees starting rotation, permanently.
Hughes is returning from the disabled list and hopes to put his first three nightmarish starts of this season behind him. What would have sounded like deja-vu in spring training is now a reality-- Hughes is once again fighting for a position on the over-stocked Yankees rotation.
Maybe the Yankees are hoping that the Jeter milestone will obscure their struggling starter's long-awaited return and take the pressure off.
The righthander has vowed to put his early season struggles to rest and live up to early-career expectations.
"I know it'll be good. I know my stuff is there," Hughes said yesterday. "I just have to execute pitches. I know if I can do that, I'll be fine. I'm not going out there with any wonder or curiosity or doubt."
Hughes may not have any doubt, but the Yankees will be keeping a close eye on tonight's performance. His fastball's average speed dipped below 90 mph before his arm gave out in April. A 0-1 record and 13.94 ERA after three starts still haunt the Yankees hurler.
After three rehab starts, Hughes fastball was once again topped-out at 93 mph and, in his last outing in Trenton, Hughes went threw 88 pitches in six innings and gave up one earned run.
If Hughes doesn't blow up this evening against the Indians, his position on the team could still be in jeopardy, even if the Yankees remain committed to the 25 year-old who won 18 games last season. The team sent Ivan Nova down to the minors to make room for Hughes. And Nova's last few outings didn't make it an easy decision.
Nova seemed to have locked up the No. 5 spot after picking up his game over the last six games. The current starter was 8-4 with a 4.12 ERA before he was put on ice.
Hughes will have to show some better-than-average stuff tonight.
All of the Yankee starters have been pitching well and, with Hughes return, the rotation was six deep. Nova became the odd-man out but could be jettisoned back if Hughes gets blown out tonight.
Hughes has always benefited from a high-scoring Yankees line-up. Last year, during his All-Star season, Hughes had a 4.19 ERA but got 6.75 runs per game support. This year's offense is even more potent but Hughes sounds like he will be alright carrying his own weight.
"The difference is like night and day," he said. "The way the ball's coming out of my hand now, I'm actually getting swings and misses. I don't know exactly what went wrong, but I know something went wrong, so now it's fixed. I'm just happy to have my stuff back and be able to compete."
Yankees manager, Joe Girardi, who coddled Hughes last year by limiting his innings, will surely have a hook ready if Hughes falters.
If Hughes struggles, it's just a matter of how quick Girardi pulls the rightie and where he decides to put his pitcher afterwards. The Yankees are in a playoff race and only a game or two could decide the outcome, so every win or loss is important. Nova is a nice backup plan.
Yankees pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, feels three rehab starts were enough for Hughes and the anxious hurler is ready.
"The velocity's better. The arm speed's better," said Rothschild. "And I think all of his pitches, his command should be better."
Hughes endured a battery of inconclusive testing in April and thinks the 82-day lay-off was a blessing in disguise.
"It's not like I'm at the end of my career, I knew I have a few good years left in me," said Hughes. "I figured it didn't just go away, that something had to be up. That's why I went and got it checked out. And ever since I took that rest and the cortisone, it's been a different story."
The story tonight was to be Jeter's quest for 3,000 hits and, unless Jeter gets three quick hits tonight, all concerned eyes will be on Hughes pursuit of his fastball and the length of Girardi's hook.