Phil Hughes continues to impress

Yankees starter Phil Hughes delivers to Minnesota Twins Yankees starter Phil Hughes delivers to Minnesota Twins batter Jamey Carroll during the first inning of a spring training game in Fort Myers, Fla. (March 11, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- From the start, Phil Hughes wasn't buying what Joe Girardi was selling.

Though Girardi said early in the spring he wouldn't start evaluating his pitchers contending for rotation spots until their third or fourth starts, Hughes looked at every time he took the mound as an opportunity to make an impression.

It's been a good one.

Hughes' standout spring continued Wednesday when he allowed two runs, three hits and a walk in five innings of the Yankees' 5-2 win over the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park.

The slimmed-down Hughes -- slimmed down compared to last spring when his mysterious decline in velocity portended an injury-plagued and ultimately disappointing season -- struck out three and saw his ERA drop to 2.03 in four spring outings.

"Good curveball, good changeup," one scout said. "Looks like a totally different pitcher than last spring."

Girardi called that difference "night and day," and barring injury the manager knows the decision on the rotation won't be easy. With CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda the only pitchers guaranteed spots, contenders Freddy Garcia, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova and Hughes all have performed reasonably well.

And Andy Pettitte, of course, will soon be added to the mix.

"I like the way our guys have thrown the ball," Girardi said. "I've been pleased with the way our starters have gone about their business and competed for this. This is going to be a difficult decision."

Hughes' fastball peaked at 93 mph and sat at 92, but what stood out was his curveball and changeup, which was the best it's been this spring. Discussion of Hughes and his changeup has become an annual rite of spring, dating to at least 2007. By most accounts, the 25-year-old might finally have something with it.

"I really hadn't gotten a chance to throw as many changeups as I want," said Hughes, who threw 70 pitches (50 for strikes). "Seems like a lot of quick swings this spring and I didn't necessarily have those drawn-out counts. I seemed to have a lot of those today where I could really incorporate my changeup. If I really think about the one thing I took a step forward with today, it would be the changeup."

Hughes' lone mistake was a first-pitch cutter that came in flat in the second inning to Matt Joyce, with the leftfielder crushing it well over the 414-foot sign in center for a two-run homer.

Otherwise, it was another good outing for Hughes, who said "it's easier to sleep at night" this spring compared to last.

Notes & quotes: Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was so impressed with Pettitte's bullpen session Tuesday that the lefthander will throw live BP Friday. That puts Pettitte slightly ahead of schedule though Girardi said it's too soon to say if that means he could be back sooner than the loose May 1 timetable the Yankees have given . . . Girardi said Nick Swisher (groin) will be out an indefinite period of time, but the issue still isn't thought serious enough to send the RF for tests. "If it takes a few days, it takes a few days," Girardi said.

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