David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - By now, there's no point in wondering anymore what type of pitcher Phil Hughes can or will be. Not to get all Zen about it, but Hughes is who he is, and that's something less than the Yankees always figured on.
For every eight-inning gem, such as the nine-strikeout night against the Athletics on May 4, there's another early implosion waiting around the corner. That lack of consistency is what separates a Cy Young winner from the back end of the rotation, and even Hughes doesn't seem comfortable in his own skin lately.
He got so frustrated with himself in the fifth inning Tuesday night that pitching coach Larry Rothschild made a special visit to the mound after Hughes fell behind 2-and-0 to Yamaico Navarro, who immediately followed Chris Dickerson's second homer.
"Just to take a breather," Hughes said.
With so many tight games through the first seven weeks, it feels like the Yankees have had precious few opportunities to exhale on their climb to the top of the American League East. They might not need Hughes' help to stay there, but it would be nice.
After bombing his last time out, when he failed to survive the first inning against the Mariners, Hughes got through six in Tuesday night's eventual 3-2 loss to the Orioles, and it was still insufficient. Leaving two fastballs up to Dickerson, the former Yankees cast-off, turned into a pair of home runs that vaporized two leads and eventually let Nate McLouth get a crack at Vidal Nuño in the 10th.
"Obviously," Hughes said, "I'd like to do a better job."
Perhaps the most important way to measure a pitcher's effectiveness -- advanced metrics aside -- is by the ability to keep his team in the game, and Hughes did that in a very dangerous ballpark. But as well as the Yankees have pitched this season, Hughes too often seems like a question mark in a rotation that tends to feel more vulnerable than the numbers show.
"He's come out of it before," Joe Girardi said. "So there was nothing that made me believe he wouldn't come out of it again."
But the Yankees have excelled despite Hughes, who trimmed his ERA to 5.51 and remained at 2-3 with Tuesday's no-decision. That makes him the weak link. Remove Hughes' numbers, and the rest of the rotation is 17-10 with a 3.22 ERA. That's largely in part to the true ace of this staff, Hiroki Kuroda, who is 6-2 and carries a 1.99 ERA into Wednesday's series finale against the Orioles.
There's no reason to doubt that success won't continue, but at age 38, it's hardly a guarantee, either.
As for CC Sabathia, he's been a tough read, from his diminished velocity to a startling lack of command evident during the Yankees' 6-4 win Monday night.
Things get a bit shakier from here. Andy Pettitte, the oldest starting pitcher in baseball at age 40, figured to need a couple of mini-vacations this season.
The Yankees have the depth to plug some holes, and had been doing so effectively with David Phelps proving to be an upgrade from the injured Ivan Nova. It's probably greedy to think Nuño, pressed into Tuesday's Mission Impossible, could be a fail-safe option.
Who's left? Possibly Chien-Ming Wang, but he hasn't looked ready for a call-up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Wang allowed seven hits but only one run in a 52/3-inning stint Tuesday. He's 2-4 with a 3.07 ERA, and has been nicked for 49 hits in 44 innings. Michael Pineda, who could get a rehab start Thursday for Class A Tampa, is throwing 95 again and should be available in the not-too-distant future.
For now, the Yankees seem equipped to get through this bumpy stretch with Pettitte and Nova on the DL, provided that Hughes can assist in stabilizing the whole operation. To do that, he'll need to straighten himself out first.