Davidoff: It's been nicely set up for Hughes - Newsday

Davidoff: It's been nicely set up for Hughes

New York Yankees' Phil Hughes (65) stretches during New York Yankees' Phil Hughes (65) stretches during ALDS practice. (Oct. 8, 2010) Photo Credit: John Dunn

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Ken Davidoff Newsday columnist Ken Davidoff.

Davidoff joined Newsday in 2001, covering the Yankees for the better part of four seasons, and was ...

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The Yankees' most recent World Series drought, that grueling, parade-less stretch from 2001 through 2008, occurred because the Yankees did not produce, procure and protect young players.

So what better way to symbolize this new Yankees age than this: Phil Hughes will start American League Division Series Game 3 on Saturday night, and he'll have full protection.

Hughes takes the mound with the Yankees holding a 2-0 lead over the beleaguered Twins. And with room for error, in case his first career postseason start doesn't go as smoothly as hoped.

"If it was 1-1, if we were down 0-2, I don't think it changes," Hughes told reporters Friday at Yankee Stadium. "I have to go out with the approach of winning this game. That's it. Making good pitches and . . . taking it pitch by pitch, and going out there and giving us a quality outing. I don't think that changes necessarily just because we're in the driver's seat or if it was 1-1 or down 0-2."

It figures that Hughes would say that, and he probably believes it, too. But common sense says that by slotting him in Game 3 and Andy Pettitte in Game 2, resisting the urge to line them up the other way around, the Yankees have cut Hughes some slack.

Just as they correctly have done since they chose him in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft. Hughes missed some minor-league time in 2005 with right shoulder inflammation, and that's his only documented arm problem. He visited the disabled list in 2007 and 2008 for injuries to other body parts, and that held back his development. Yet the Yankees stuck to their belief that Hughes' innings count should come along gradually, even if that decelerated his progress.

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This season became the payoff. In return for skipping him a few times in the starting rotation, the Yankees got 1761/3 innings from Hughes, with a respectable 4.19 ERA. As the regular season drew to a close, he seemed to gain strength; he shut down the Red Sox on Sept. 26 in what might have been the team's biggest game of the season, and he did so with about 24 hours notice that he was starting.

"You can look at the game where we moved him up to pitch against Boston," Joe Girardi agreed. "He seemed relaxed and he seemed to be himself. I have not been given any indications I'm going to have to talk to him."

He did struggle in last year's postseason, putting up a 9.95 ERA in nine appearances as the Yankees' primary setup man. Hughes insisted that didn't result from nerves. "I kind of viewed it as me struggling in the wrong time," he said. "I really didn't think that the playoff sort of atmosphere or anything like that factored in. I just wasn't making good pitches."

He gets the benefit of the doubt there because his first postseason often is overlooked. In the 2007 ALDS against Cleveland, Hughes relieved injured Roger Clemens in a most daunting situation - with the Yankees down 2-0 in the series and 3-0 in Game 3, with one more loss eliminating them and relieving Joe Torre of his duties. He coolly threw 32/3 innings, allowing two hits and striking out four in earning the victory.

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The Yankees, having stuck to their plan of development (and massive spending), are less desperate now. Hughes gets to start the game. He gets to pass the 200-innings mark next year, good health permitting.

The Hughes Rules protected him from April through September. The Twins did the same the last few days. Now Hughes can thank his teammates and his bosses for the effort.

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