Phil Hughes a new man as he faces Yankees on Sunday
Phil Hughes looks like a different man this season, more mature and showing a noticeable growth.
"Once you get out of New York, you have to grow the beard,'' he said, grinning as he rubbed his cheek. "You're allowed to now.''
Indeed, sporting a full beard is one of a few things the Twins starter does now that he wasn't able to do last year with the Yankees. Pitching well and winning, of course, lead the list.
The move to Minnesota has allowed Hughes to flourish. He returns to the Yankee Stadium mound Sunday as the Twins' leader in wins, strikeouts and ERA, having reached the potential that made him a first-round pick by the Yankees in 2004. "It's gonna be emotional and it'll feel strange being on the other side,'' he said. "But once I throw that first pitch, it's all focus.''
The righthander is 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA and, perhaps most impressive, hasn't walked a batter in 442/3 innings since April 20 or surrendered a home run since May 4. He allowed 59 homers in the previous two seasons with the Yankees but has given up four in 611/3 innings in 2014.
Hughes, 27, had good seasons for the Yankees, particularly as a bullpen stalwart in 2009, and he went 18-8 in 2010 as a starter. But he couldn't sustain that success or live up to his "can't-miss prospect'' billing.
Hughes' rock bottom was a miserable 2013. He went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA -- including 1-10 with a 6.32 ERA and 17 homers allowed in 781/3 innings at Yankee Stadium -- and was booed regularly at home while approaching free agency.
"That was my only regret,'' Hughes said. "I look back on my time with the Yankees and I have a lot of good memories. It's just too bad last year went the way it did.''
He signed a three-year, $24-million contract with the Twins in December, a deal that now seems like a relative bargain. The Yankees' starting rotation, meanwhile, has been wracked by injuries. "I don't really look at it as redemption,'' he said, "but I did want to bounce back badly and I'm glad I've been successful here so far.''
There's something to be said for the change of scenery -- literally. Target Field in Minneapolis yields fewer home runs than Yankee Stadium does. But Hughes is 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA on the road.
"My stuff is good and I've been attacking the zone,'' he said. "It's the same thing I've always tried to do, but for whatever reason, it's working better here.''
Hughes' fastball velocity -- once a hot topic in New York -- hasn't budged from his career average of 92.2 mph. The tangible change has been his increased use of the cutter and its effectiveness.
He had success with the pitch in 2009 as a reliever -- with some tutelage from Mariano Rivera -- but used it sparingly as a starter. This season, Hughes has thrown it 25 percent of the time, essentially having it replace the slider as his secondary pitch.
"He's pounding the strike zone with [the cutter], in and out,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's not just that he's not walking people, but he's throwing quality strikes. He believes in himself and you can see it.''
The fresh start helps, too. With the Twins, Hughes has a clean slate, less pressure and renewed confidence.
"I pitch a little better when I'm in a groove and confident, and I think that's true for everybody,'' he said. "I'm definitely comfortable here.''