10/10/2010 1:12 AM ET
Righty right where he belongs
Hughes throws gem in first postseason start
By Sam Borden / SNY.tv
Phil Hughes pitches to the Twins on Saturday night, his first postseason start. (AP)

NEW YORK - When it was over, and the Yankees were back inside a clubhouse wrapped in cellophane to protect the flat-screens from runaway Champagne, Phil Hughes was right in the middle of it all.

It was where he belonged. The kid from Southern California, the 24-year-old righthander who has been everything from hot prospect to big-time trade bait and even lights-out reliever last season, was finally doing exactly what the Yankees had always imagined he'd be doing: Winning big games in October.

This was Hughes's first career postseason start but you wouldn't have known it. You couldn't have known it. Not the way he came out and attacked, throwing strike after strike and needing just 31 pitches to get through a perfect first three innings.

His fastball sung. His curveball dipped. His change-up, the pitch he has been working on all season, tumbled head over heels. He pitched seven shutout innings, dominating the Twins as the Yankees swept Minnesota out of the division series with a 6-1 win.

"It's a maturation process," said pitching coach Dave Eiland, who worked with Hughes both in the Minors and the Majors. "You're watching a kid growing up before your eyes."

He laughed. "Dividends are starting to be paid," he said.

The Yankees had been worried about their pitching and it was understandable. CC Sabathia is a given, just like always, but A.J. Burnett was an enigma all year and Javier Vazquez was a virtual bust. So it was Andy Pettitte and Hughes behind Sabathia, the old guy who might be too old and the young kid who might still be too young.

Except Pettitte wasn't. He threw a gem in Game 2 in Minneapolis, got another win in October to add to his all-time record.

And Hughes wasn't. He threw a masterpiece in Game 3 in the Bronx, got his first win in October as a starter.

"Obviously CC is the leader of this whole thing but we have to have something behind him," Hughes said. "It feels good to be able to do that when we need it."

They'll need it again soon. Whether the Yankees face the Rays or the Rangers in the ALCS, they'll almost surely have to use four starting pitchers, meaning that Burnett - and his inconsistent results - will likely get another turn. That puts even more pressure on Hughes to be solid behind Sabathia and Pettitte. "We've got a lot of work left to do," Hughes said. "I think everyone in here knows that."

First, though, there was time to celebrate. Hughes spoke to the media in shorts, shower sandals and a ripped Yankees t-shirt, one he said he has had for years and that he reserves for when he is "lounging."

His was soaked with beer and bubbly, and he held the neck of a Champagne bottle as the party swirled all around him. He was critical to the Yankees winning the World Series last year, working out of the bullpen as the primary set-up man. This time was still different. Being the starter, the one who sets the tone, is a different kind of responsibility and one that Hughes savored.

"I knew this was something I could do," he said. "I knew what the environment would be like ... so I just tried to control my emotion."

It worked. Hughes's fastball reached the mid-90s and he overcame a curveball that started to slip in the middle innings. He stranded two runners in the fifth with a strikeout and a pop-up, then left two more on base in the sixth when he got Jason Kubel to whiff.

The biggest obstacle may have been the Yankees' four-run fourth inning, where Hughes had to sit on the bench for an extended break as the hitters broke the game open.

Eiland said he had some concern that Hughes would go cold waiting around to go back to the mound, but Hughes passed the time by playing catch with Eiland in the cage underneath the Yankees dugout. That kept his arm loose enough to continue his magic.

"I kind of had my lumps as a young guy coming up in this organization," Hughes said, and it's true. He did. Trade speculation and injuries and changing roles and competition.

Hughes's path to get here wasn't easy.

He got here anyway. Got to this night, this moment. This place.

Right in the middle of it all. Right where the Yankees need him to be.

Sam Borden is an award-winning columnist for LoHud.com and The Journal News and is a contributor to SNY.tv.
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