The question about the innings limit causing a terrible start hung like a curveball waiting to be crushed. It would have been an easy excuse for Phil Hughes to explain his worst start of the year.
Instead Hughes did not take the bait and even said the nine-day layoff actually made him feel better. It made the Mariners feel nice and cozy as Seattle walked away with a 7-4 win last night in the Bronx.
“Not at all," Hughes said about the innings limit being the reason for allowing a career high 10 hits and seven runs in 5 2/3 innings.
Instead Hughes explained that his fastball did not have the usual bite, his cutter was a little off and by the time he adjusted to Seattle’s aggressive approach it was too late.
Even manager Joe Girardi hinted at that possibility, but Hughes never used it and was accountable for his second loss in 12 decisions.
“They were aggressive, it seems like,'' he said. “There was like four or five leadoff doubles I had to work out of – trouble pretty much every inning. I wasn’t able to get ahead. They were just being aggressive, hitting a lot of first pitches. And then when I needed to make key pitches I wasn’t able to do it.''
The key pitches were the following: a cutter that stayed over the plate for Ichiro Suzuki, leading to an RBI single in the third, a 0-1 belt-high fastball that Franklin Gutierrez sent into the left field seats, a two-out fastball to Jack Wilson that became an RBI single and finally a misplaced cutter that Rob Johnson lined into left field for a two-run base hit and a 7-1 lead.
“It’s not like he was walking everybody,” Derek Jeter said. “They have a job to do and they did a good job.”
Hughes was pitching for the first time since beating the Mets on June 19 because the Yankees are taking a cautious approach with young arms. They did the same to Joba Chamberlain last year and are planning to do it with Hughes, who is believed to be limited to 170-180 innings.
"His health is the most important thing for the long term," Girardi said. "Those are decisions we have looked long and hard at and they have done a lot of research on it. We don't want to see this kid have to miss two months, six months, a year because he is overworked. We had to go through it with Joba last year. We have to go through it with (Hughes) somewhat, but not as strict.”
Right now, Hughes is at 88 innings through 14 starts. He will have 16 by the All-Star break as the Yankees plan on the 24-year-old starting Sunday against Toronto and July 9 in Seattle.
By then Hughes would like to correct some of the issues that have led to him allowing 18 runs and 31 hits in his last four starts. Hughes had not lost in that span because his teammates scored 26 runs and had at least eight runs in eight of his starts.
None of those came against Cliff Lee, who was last seen on the Yankee Stadium mound pitching a six-hitter and striking out 10 for the Phillies in Game One of the World Series. Lee was not as sharp this time but he held the Yankees to one run until a half-hearted comeback fell short in the ninth and pitched his third straight complete game.
"He never beats himself," Girardi said. "I actually thought we swung the bats as good tonight as we have the last three or four times that we've seen him. We squared some balls up."
Lee did so on a night where the Yankees struck out just twice and gave up his fifth walk, snapping a streak of 144 batters.
Other than two solo shots by Nick Swisher, it was a pretty much futile effort against Lee and combined with a poor pitching performance, the Yankees will lose.
But if it means Hughes is healthy down the line and helping the Yankees win in October, nobody will remember the time he lost to the Mariners at the end of June.
“It is also called developing people,” Girardi said. “Because they have been able to help us at this level and help us win a championship, we need to develop them. We could have sent Hughes down last year and just kept him as a starter, but I'm not so sure we would have won a championship. That's what the Yankees do: We win championships."