Sunday will not be the first time that former Yankees star prospect Phil Hughes pitches to Yankees institution Derek Jeter. Now a Minnesota Twin via free agency and enjoying a personal baseball renaissance, Hughes on Friday recalled facing Jeter "once in spring training, when he was playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.''
It was a tuneup game for the American team against the Yankees. "I was told to throw fastballs away,'' Hughes said. "We didn't want to hit him. I don't think I have to do that this time.''
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Hughes, 27, returned to the Bronx for the first time since ending his sometimes bumpy seven-year Yankees career with a 4-14 record in 2013.
"It's a little weird,'' he said before Friday night's game. "I didn't know where the visiting team comes in. I had to figure that out. I had never seen the visiting clubhouse before, so that was a little strange. It's a little bit of a weird feeling, I will not lie. But it's good, too.
"A lot of memories here, obviously, and a lot of things I think back very fondly on. Obviously, last year was not one of those, and that's kind of how you're going to be remembered. But that's how it goes. That's life. That's baseball. It's good to be back.''
A former No. 1 draft pick, he was 56-50 with a 4.53 ERA as a Yankee, once an All-Star, twice the winner of more than 15 games. Yankees manager Joe Girardi cited Hughes' "pivotal'' role in the bullpen during the team's 2009 championship run.
But the Yankees were not pleading for Hughes to stay around last fall, and he said "both parties kind of felt it was the right thing to cut the cord at that point.''
Conventional wisdom was that Hughes was too much of a fly ball pitcher to do well at the new Yankee Stadium, a home run hitter's favorite. But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on Friday argued that Hughes "would be successful, I don't care where he's pitching, if he throws the ball like he has, pounds the strike zone in and out, just keeps attacking.''
Hughes has emerged as Minnesota's ace -- 5-1, 3.23 ERA, 50 strikeouts and six walks in 611/3 innings. He hasn't allowed a walk in his last 442/3 innings, a stretch that began nearly six full weeks ago.
He has gone back to what worked for him in his two best seasons, 2009 and 2010 -- fastballs and cutters. He's throwing the cutter a career-high 24.7 percent of the time. "I don't think I've thrown one [changeup] this year,'' he said. "I take that back. I've thrown one -- a home run, in Chicago. Smaller guy, got some pop'' -- White Sox outfielder Alejandro de Aza. "I said, 'Enough of this stuff.' ''
Jeter had better expect fastballs Sunday. And not away.