High heat two problems for Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes pours a bottle of water over Phil Hughes pours a bottle of water over his head in the dugout after manager Joe Girardi removed him from the mound during the fifth inning. (June 20, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

The first-pitch temperature Wednesday at Yankee Stadium was 94 degrees. About 10 minutes later, Phil Hughes' first pitch to Freddie Freeman wound up in the rightfield bullpen for a two-run homer.

Did one have anything to with the other? Yes, the oppressive daytime heat can be a factor in making a baseball soar like a Titleist Pro V1. But in this instance, Freeman unloaded on a 92-mph fastball as if he knew what was coming.

"If I see something that comes straight," Freeman said, "I'm going to swing. I just try to look for strikes and swing at them."

That turned out to be a good strategy for the Braves, an aggressive bunch that beat the Yankees at their own game in Wednesday's 10-5 victory. The two teams totaled nine homers -- the most in the four-year history of the new ballpark -- and Atlanta smacked five of them.

For Hughes, the damage came early and often. After Freeman's two-run blast, Martin Prado stung him for a solo shot in the third. Jason Heyward clubbed the first of his two homers in the fourth and David Ross, the No. 9 hitter, went deep to open the fifth.

Sensing a pattern here? So did the Braves, who feasted on Hughes' fastballs in his 41/3 innings. The lone exception was Ross, who muscled an 0-and-2 curveball over the scoreboard in leftfield.

"Everybody loves to hit homers," Ross said, smiling. "I think [Hughes] matches up well for us. We're a fastball-hitting team and he throws a lot of fastballs. So if he's not getting that breaking ball over for a strike, it can get tough for him.''

Despite the sizzling on-field temperatures, the timing of Hughes' meltdown was surprising. Hughes was 6-1 with a 3.27 ERA in his previous eight starts and had allowed eight home runs in 521/3 innings during that stretch. By nature, however, Hughes can be vulnerable on afternoons like Wednesday.

As a pitcher who likes to get hitters out at the top of the strike zone, Hughes' 40.5 ground ball percentage was the lowest in the majors entering the series finale. When you mix that with pizza-oven temperatures and poor command of his fastball -- at cozy Yankee Stadium -- it's a recipe for disaster.

"If I have really good stuff, it's easier for me to pitch on days like today," Hughes said. "When I don't have good stuff and good location, it's a battle. My fastball is my bread and butter. It's tough to pitch without it.''

Three of the four home runs Hughes allowed came with two strikes. Showing again how the lack of a putaway pitch has haunted him all season, Hughes threw three consecutive fastballs to Prado before he drilled the fourth -- a belt-high, 90-mph cantaloupe -- into the leftfield seats.

With Heyward, it was more of a fight. He fouled off a pair of two-strike curveballs, took a fastball, then turned on another 93-mph fastball, this one letter-high. Heyward hit almost directly above the 314-foot sign in rightfield. When asked about Yankee Stadium's hitter-friendly dimensions, he grinned.

"It's small to the corners; I know that," Heyward said.

After Wednesday's beating, Hughes leads the majors with 19 home runs allowed. Who knows how many more would have left the stadium if Joe Girardi had tried to squeeze a few more pitches from him? Overall, the nine homers Wednesday pushed the Yankee Stadium total to 98 for the season, an average of 2.88 per game, which ranked second in the AL -- barely trailing Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field (2.89).

But you didn't hear the Braves complaining. Except for maybe the third of the four homers Tommy Hanson also served up, which Ross described as that "cheap one to A-Rod." Hughes was in no position to judge afterward. All of his went pretty far.

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