David Phelps was given 75 pitches or five innings, whichever came first. He reached both at approximately the same time, but his two biggest throws weren't even directed toward home plate.
Aided by two key pickoff throws, Phelps turned in a solid 78-pitch showing over five innings and grew stronger toward the end of his outing in Monday night’s 8-2 victory over the Rangers.
“They’re huge,” Phelps said. “It is two outs without throwing a pitch. Anytime I can do that, it makes things a whole lot easier.”
In his fourth career start, Phelps finished with a respectable line of two runs and six hits while throwing 51 pitches for strikes. Early on, it did not look like he would reach the fifth before throwing his 75th pitch.
“He was just throwing strikes,” catcher Russell Martin said. “He was attacking the strike zone and keeping the hitters off-balance with off-speed strikes. He was just using that cutter off that fastball a little bit. He was just making pitches. They got one run off a broken bat and one a pretty good pitch.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about my pitch count. I wasn’t thinking how long I was going to go,” Phelps said. “I knew that for as long as I was going to go, I had to keep us in the game. So after giving up the two runs early, I went out there and was trying to put up as many zeroes as I could.”
Phelps allowed seven of the first 13 hitters to reach base and fell behind 2-0 after allowing a long solo home run to David Murphy in the second. But the damage stopped there with two throws out of the Andy Pettitte playbook.
With two outs in the second, Phelps hit Ian Kinsler with a fastball and with speedy Elvis Andrus at the plate he threw over to first after ball one and did not get him. After a called strike, Phelps threw over and this time got the second baseman leaning a little too much toward second.
An inning later, Phelps did it again.
He had first and second with one out following singles by Andrus and Adrian Beltre. With a 2-1 count on Nelson Cruz, Phelps turned and made a quick throw to second to nab Andrus.
“Great,” Martin said of the pickoffs. “Anytime you can get an out with the type of hitters they have, you’ll take it.”
“Those are two big outs that he got, especially with the guys that always loom behind Kinsler and Andrus,” manager Joe Girardi said. “These guys are extremely dangerous and to be able to change innings because of that is really important and he does a great job of holding runners on. He’s got a good pickoff move and they helped a lot.”
After that, he settled in even more, allowing just one of the final seven hitters he faced to reach and winning a long encounter with Andrus that ended with a fly out to center field.
As impressive as the pickoffs were, perhaps Phelps’s most poised moments occurred during his final two encounters with Josh Hamilton. Hamilton came into the game 9-for-18 over his previous five games and hitting .391 in his last 10, but went 0-for-2 with a walk against Phelps.
After walking Hamilton in the first, Phelps used his changeup to retire Hamilton on a first pitch pop-up in the third. In the fifth, he needed just two pitches to get the slugger to ground out on a 0-1 slider.
“It’s tough because you don’t want to give in to him and let him get the best of you,” Phelps said. “At the same time, you obviously want to get that out. So it’s tough trying to balance what you want to do with him.”
By the time Phelps turned it over to Derek Lowe in his Yankee debut, the Bombers had a 6-2 lead. They scored five in the third off Ryan Dempster highlighted by Nick Swisher’s sixth career grand slam, added another in the sixth on Eric Chavez’s 13th home run and two more in the seventh.
“We’ve seen [Phelps] grow up a lot from 2011 spring training,” Girardi said. “I’m not really surprised. Just the way he went about his business. I saw a much different guy this year.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.