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New Blues for Hughes?

Phil Hughes' performance on Sunday raised new questions about his missing velocity. (AP)

The Yankees strafed Detroit starter Max Scherzer for six runs via four homers on Sunday, including two by Jorge Posada, another one by Mark Teixeira, and one by Robinson Cano. Alas, between Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon, they surrendered three homers themselves, two by Miguel Cabrera, and never did seize the lead. The dream of 162-0 is dead, as they ended up suffering their first defeat of the season.

Most disconcerting was the performance of Hughes, who lasted just four innings, and had no answers for Cabrera, who hit two-run homers in the first and third. The latter came after he issued a leadoff walk to Austin Jackson, who stole second and scored on a Brennan Boesch single; "Oh, those bases on balls," as George Stallings and my late grandfather Bernard Jaffe were prone to say. Of Hughes' 90 pitches, the Tigers swung and missed at just two, and struck out just once.

With so much attention focused on the battle for the two back spots in the rotation, Hughes' diminished velocity flew under the radar until late March, until CBS Sports' Danny Knobler and the New York Post's Joel Sherman called attention to it. The Yankees pointed out that Hughes had been experimenting with some offspeed pitches and that his velocity rose last April once the regular season started. Sunday's start illustrated that Hughes couldn't simply flip a switch to dial up his velocity; after living in the 92-94 MPH range last year, he was at 89-91 yesterday.

Underlying the missing MPH is a concern that the 24-year-old righty may be hurt, particularly since his past struggles have often been linked to injuries. Here's what Baseball Prospectus' injury expert Corey Dawkins (writing with Marc Normandin) had to say:

This is not the first time there has been concern about a drop-off in Phil Hughes’ fastball velocity. In late 2007 and early 2008, there were similar concerns, which ended up being both warranted and predictive to some extent. At the end of 2007, after coming back from a major hamstring strain, Hughes admitted that the hamstring was at least partially to blame for the decreased velocity as he compensated for the injury. In 2008, his velocity dipped as low as 86 and averaged around 89-90 in his first couple of starts. News came out that he was suffering from a stress fracture of the rib shortly thereafter, and he ended up missing close to four months that season. Most recently, Hughes was in the mid-to-high 80s throughout spring training, and he sat at 87-89 mph in yesterday’s start, with a top speed of 91 mph.

We’re not insinuating that he’s going to miss four months of the season, but rarely does the average fastball velocity drop to this degree and stay there without an underlying injury (one Hughes may not even be aware of yet). His arm strength could get to where it needs to be in the next week or two, and this early-season issue could blow over, but until we see something to believe in, the outlook is dicey.

Relative to some of the other Yankee pitchers, Hughes came into the season with a sunny outlook on the injury front; he was one of two starters (Ivan Nova being the other) whom BP's new CHIPPER injury forecaster rated as green on the 1-, 15- and 30-day injury risk fronts, as opposed to yellow or red. It's possible that he is again pitching through some minor aches and pains, not wanting to be a bother at a time when the Yankee rotation is in so much disarray, though Hughes dismissed that idea. The good news is that he hasn't had any major troubles with his arm which would particularly portend further woes, but the bad news — if he is indeed hurt — is that non-arm injuries can compromise mechanics and lead to a cascade where the stresses are eventually transferred to the arm.

It's also possible that Hughes is simply lacking arm strength even after six weeks of spring training, or that his woes are rooted in a minor mechanical issue which neither new pitching coach Larry Rothschild nor new catcher Russell Martin have been able to spot given their lack of familiarity, though with ex-catchers Joe Girardi and Tony Peña on staff, and Posada still around, you'd think the collection of eyes would spot something. Hughes, for his part, didn't sound willing to blame any maladies for his poor outing: "Two bad pitches, Cabrera, four runs... Just bad location overall."

Sunday's game only underscored the fact that the Yankees' margin for error is slim with regards to their rotation. Colon, who pitched so well all spring only to wind up as the long man due to concerns about his lack of recent major league experience, struck out five in his four innings of work, but he came into the game in the fifth and instantly surrendered a single to Ramon Santiago and a homer to Boesch, then gave up two more runs in the sixth capped by a Santiago double and a Boesch sacrifice fly. Santiago's a utilityman with a career line of .248/.317/.336, while Boesch is a second-year platoon outfielder who hit .256/.320/.416 as a rookie despite an impossibly hot start, such are the holes in his swing. This was not Murderer's Row picking apart a good pitcher, this was mediocrity pecking away at a marginal one.

Soooo, how's Kevin Millwood looking? And is that kid Banuelos ready?