BALTIMORE -- There's something about watching a team clobber six home runs that will go a long way toward changing the way a man looks at the world.

That is, if the man is smart.

"I wasn't going to be stubborn," Phil Hughes said.

He watched on Thursday night as the Orioles pounded fastball after fastball over the fence. That was an especially troubling development for him.

Hughes is predominantly a fastball pitcher. Everything he does begins with the fact that his fastball is clocked consistently around 95 mph.

The O's eat fastballs for lunch and have them again for dinner, especially when a pitcher leaves them in the middle of the plate.

Hughes could still throw Baltimore a diet of fastballs if he located it precisely. Otherwise, things might get ugly again.

He did locate his fastball on Friday. He threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of 25 Orioles. He also kept them off balance.

Hughes' 95 pitches included 17 sliders, 16 changeups and seven curveballs. In a game the Yankees desperately needed to win, Hughes kept the O's in check for five innings as his teammates ran up a 7-0 lead on their way to an 8-5 victory.

Hughes departed after allowing three earned runs in six innings, and if that doesn't sound like anything special, you haven't been paying attention.

In the first six games of September, the Yanks got just one victory and a 7.03 ERA from their rotation.

With his teammates scoring five runs in the fourth inning and two more in the fifth, Hughes gave the Yankees a chance to win and to reopen a one-game lead over the Orioles and two over the Rays in the American League East.

"He's extremely important," Yanks manager Joe Girardi said. "He's a starter we expect to win games. He was an 18-game winner before. He's pitched pretty well for us this year."

With Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova on the disabled list and with Michael Pineda having missed the entire season, the Yankees have very little margin for error in their rotation. For most of this season, Hughes has been everything they'd hoped for.

Now with their 10-game lead pretty much gone and with 24 games remaining, every contest takes on added importance.

Hughes said he worked hard to make a game like Friday's feel normal. He also said that looking around a clubhouse that has Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and others who've been through a few pennant races brought a sense of confidence that things were still going to work out.

"I just tried to make my pitches and not worry about the circumstances," Hughes said. "We still have a lot of games to go, a lot of games in our division. We can't put too much pressure on one particular game. We have to play well for this whole month."

Hughes was really pleased with a slider more active than usual and with his ability to locate his fastball. He left Camden Yards on Thursday night with the vision of the O's squaring up fastballs.

"Guys were geared up for the fastball," he said. "I just tried to hit spots with my fastball. Obviously, I throw a lot of them. I can't just abandon it."

But?

"Yeah, that's more changeups than I've thrown in a while," Hughes said. "You have to make adjustments to their lineup. I'm predominantly a fastball pitcher, but I'm not going to make stupid mistakes when I have other options."

The Orioles got five runs in five innings off Hughes last weekend at Yankee Stadium. They hit two home runs in that game. He learned some then, too.

"I think maybe he has been giving hitters a little too much credit," Yanks catcher Russell Martin said. "He's still going to be fastball dominant. But his cut slider was nice. It matches up against some of their power righties. I just thought he did a nice job of being aggressive."

And so the Yankees, who've had at least a share of first place since June 10, are back on top.

As Hughes said, there are lots of games left, but with big crowds at Camden Yards this weekend and with the Orioles and Rays right behind the Yanks, the games have a playoff feel.

"We all have to step up," Hughes said. "Everybody has injuries and things they're going through. We just have to do our jobs and not try to do too much. It would be nice if everyone was healthy and things like that, but that's baseball. We have to get through that. There's a sense of pride stepping up and doing a job when we have some guys out."