Phil Hughes came into Tuesday night's start against the White Sox with the strong suggestion that his spot in the rotation was on the line. From the outset of the game — whose start was delayed by the threat of rain — he pitched like a man with no intention of surrendering that spot, hitting 95 mph on the radar gun during an impressive first inning in which he set down the side on 10 pitches. The immediate consensus from the YES broadcast booth was that it was his best inning of the year, which wasn't saying much given that he came into the game allowing nearly a run per inning. By the end of the night, he had his best outing of the season, a dominant showing that had to give the Yankees hope that he's turned the corner.
Hughes' velocity tailed off a bit, but against an impatient White Sox lineup, it didn't matter, particularly given his ability to locate his pitches. He attacked the strike zone with a zeal that recalled last year's early run, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 out of the 20 batters he faced, and spotting both his new, tight curveball and his cutter effectively. He used the team's aggressiveness against them, finishing several at-bats in just two pitches. He needed just 65 pitches to work six innings, only once throwing more than 12 in a frame. A first-inning single by Adam Dunn, a third-inning single by Juan Pierre, and a fifth-inning single by A.J. Pierzynski that was immediately erased via a double play — those were the only times the Sox reached base; Hughes didn't walk a batter while striking out four. Meanwhile, the Yankee offense rolled, homering twice (Russell Martin and Mark Teixeira) and scoring four runs against starter John Danks, then adding two more against reliever Jason Frasor, one of them via another homer by Teixeira. More on that in a moment.
Given that low pitch count, Hughes could have easily worked deeper into the game, and perhaps withstood a few blemishes. But the rain started falling when he took the mound in the seventh inning, and the game never restarted once the tarp was rolled onto the field. It goes into the books as a complete game shutout just the same. For the game, Hughes wound up averaging 92.5 MPH with his four-seam fastball according to the PITCH f/x data at Brooks Baseball. By comparison, he averaged 91.2 in his last turn against Seattle, and 90.9 in that awful slogin 100-dgree heat against Oakland. Of course, those are raw readings against which park factors should be applied; as my Baseball Prospectus colleague Mike Fast has shown, stadium readings can differ by around two miles per hour at the extremes, so it's difficult to draw too many conclusions from the small sample. Still, the results speak for themselves — Hughes was throwing harder and it helped both his heater and his offspeed stuff.
The strong start doesn't close the books on Ivan Nova's shot at regaining a spot in the rotation; he'll take his turn on Thursday, and if he makes a strong effort, there's even a possibility the six-man rotation goes another turn. Prior to last night's game, it was speculated that Hughes' outstanding work out of the bullpen in 2009 could be a deciding factor if it comes down to it, but given that the Yankees have spent two-thirds of the season trying to coax this level of performance from him, it's impossible to imagine them turning away from such progress. A guy who pitches as he did on Tuesday night is going to keep getting the ball every fifth day, period.
Meanwhile, Teixeira made some history. By homering off the lefty Danks and then the righty Frasor, he has now gone yard from both sides of the plate in the same game 12 times in his career, breaking a three-way tie with Eddie Murray and ex-Yankee Chili Davis to give him sole possession of a major league record. Interestingly enough, Teixeira grew up in Baltimore and used to watch Murray, whose switch-hitting prowess led him to try doing so himself.
Remarkably, the next two players on that same-game list are teammate Nick Swisher and Yankee legend Mickey Mantle. You'd think the Mick would own that record outright, but given that pitchers were more likely to finish what they started back when he played, and that managers didn't use lefty specialists the way they do now, the opportunity may not have presented itself as often. It's probably also true that after he'd hit one, opposing managers were more willing to walk him in subsequent turns. This is, after all, the man who ranks seventh on the all-time walk list, having retired trailing only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
Teixeira's homers marked his 30th and 31st. He joins Ruth, Roger Maris, and Alex Rodriguez as the only players to hit at least 30 in their first three seasons as a Yankee, and he's now hit 30 in eight straight seasons. A-Rod and Barry Bonds share the record by doing so in 13 straight, with Lou Gehrig (nine) and Ruth (eight) the other Yankees on the list. Impressive company, to be sure.