Hughes' performance a boost
Phenom learns that he doesn't have to be perfect to succeed
NEW YORK -- Before Phil Hughes threw his bullpen session earlier this week, manager Joe Torre did his best to mold the young phenom's psyche back into shape.
Torre and pitching coach Ron Guidry hosted a minor intervention, pulling Hughes aside and relating precisely what it would take for the 21-year-old to stop pitching his age -- and it worked. Hughes gave the Yankees his best outing in a month on Wednesday, returning to the mechanics -- and, just as important, the confidence -- that had earned him boundless praise not so long ago.
"You can see how tough he is on himself," Torre said. "That's why we needed to talk to him -- so he wouldn't be thinking negatively out there."
Torre told Hughes to stay aggressive, to be the same pitcher in the Bronx that he'd been in Scranton, in Trenton and in every other town he's ever seen. Same old message, with a distinctly different tone.
"I knew that, but they just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page," Hughes said. "I knew what I needed to do to get back to being how I am."
And so he was back, if only for a night. Hughes wasn't perfect, and that was a good thing. For once he realized that he didn't have to be perfect to succeed. His six innings of two-run ball were, if anything, perfectly mundane, but they carried with them a sense that this could quickly become the norm.
No longer was Hughes nibbling at the corners, falling behind in the count so that hitters could dig in and wait for his heat. This time he was tossing first-pitch strikes and forcing hitters to swing at whatever junk he felt inclined to throw. He finished with six strikeouts in all.
It certainly helped that a couple of mechanical tweaks put a little more motion on his fastball and infused it with a little more zip. But Hughes admitted that the improvement was only half physical, with the rest mental. He was pitching a little better, but he felt as though he was pitching a lot better. And in a game where inches and fractions and percentage points reign, any little boost has a big effect.
"There was more life, because I think he threw it with more conviction," Torre said of Hughes' fastball. "Where he wasn't trying to make perfect pitches, I think he trusted it a little more tonight."
Not every pitch was a dandy. After throwing two balls to Raul Ibanez with a man on in the third, Hughes fell into his old patterns, buzzing his next fastball right over the heart of the plate. Ibanez launched it for a two-run homer, but for the first time in a long time, Hughes realized that the Bronx sky wasn't going to fall around him.
He made his pitch, and he got beat. There are worse fates.
"I made one mistake, but I made it aggressively," he said. "Even the home run ball, I was going after him, and he beat me. I'd rather make those mistakes than the ones where I'm trying to nibble and be too fine, and then make a bad pitch."
Now Hughes has a new starting point as he looks to add stability to a rotation in flux. In his next outing, he won't be worrying about getting back on track. He'll likely have another bad inning, another bad game, another bad streak. And now that he's realized that all of it is inevitable, he's begun to learn what it takes to recover.
"Sure, guys are going to hit mistakes harder, and you're going to get beat more," Hughes said of the Majors. "But if you just play to your strengths, there's not really much that's going to beat you."
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.