As champagne dripped down the 24-year-old's face during the Yankees' clubhouse celebration Saturday night, Hughes brought up the popular pre-series story line on his own more than once, referring to it as "CC and then who?"
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But now that Andy Pettitte has proved he's healthy and Hughes has shown he can handle the postseason stage, the Yankees won't carry that dark cloud with them into the American League Championship Series.
Hughes tossed seven scoreless innings in the Yankees' 6-1 win that completed the three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins.
Calling it "personally gratifying," Hughes dominated the Twins, allowing four hits and walking one. He threw 67 of his 99 pitches for strikes, routinely hitting the mid-90s with his fastball.
"I haven't had a start like that in it seems like a long time," said Hughes, who posted a 5.11 ERA in his final 21 appearances this season. "I've had times where I felt like that during the course of a start but never able to finish it off and get those key outs with guys in scoring position."
Even though Hughes took the mound with a 2-0 lead in the series, there still was a considerable amount of pressure on him.
Last year he followed a strong regular season as Mariano Rivera's setup man by struggling in the postseason, unable to channel his emotions in a positive manner. "I think it was fatigue and also in the first outing or two he got hit a little bit, and that hurts your confidence," pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
Hughes not only wanted to put that memory behind him, but sought to prove that he deserved to start for the Yankees this postseason. (The Yankees' other options - A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez and an untested Ivan Nova - were far from attractive.) "You know you have to go out there and pull your weight," he said.
That he did, coming through with one of his best outings of the season. He joins Orlando Hernandez and Waite Hoyt as the only Yankees pitchers to throw seven scoreless innings in their first postseason starts.
Hughes thought extra adrenaline he felt on the mound helped him hit 94 mph on the radar gun when he needed to, such as with two strikes. He constantly challenged hitters, recording five of his six strikeouts on fastballs.
"I knew what the environment would be like just from pitching in the past out of the bullpen, so that wasn't really a shocker to me," Hughes said. "I just tried to control my emotion. Once I got through that first hitter, first inning, I was able to just relax and treat it like any other game."