Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working
Listening to Joe Girardi, it's easy to get the sense that he would have pulled Phil Hughes from the rotation by now if there had been a compelling replacement available to him.
And now in David Huff, he finally has just that.
That's why come Saturday afternoon, when Hughes' rotation spot next appears, we expect the Yankees to turn to the lefthanded Huff to face the Boston Red Sox.
Hughes (4-13) knows he's long been pitching on borrowed time, and it's unfortunate for him to lose his spot after a rain-shortened 11/3-inning outing in which he did nothing wrong. But considering the Yankees' uphill climb to make the postseason with less than a month remaining, now is the time to try to capitalize on their hot hand.
Huff continued his strong recent run Monday when he replaced Hughes after a 1-hour, 53-minute rain delay and allowed one run and five hits in 52/3 innings against the Chicago White Sox to pick up the victory.
Paul Konerko's home run in the seventh marked the only run Huff has allowed in 15 innings since the Yankees recalled him last month from Triple-A.
Yankees catcher Austin Romine said those stats are no fluke.
"You have a guy commanding both sides of the plate with a fastball 92, 93, and then you have to hit a changeup, too, it kind of makes it hard," Romine said. "It turns hitters into guess hitters, and if they're guessing, that's a good thing."
Yes, the majority of Huff's innings have come against the White Sox and Blue Jays, two teams officially playing out the string. But compared with Hughes, Huff is the more appealing option to face the Red Sox.
Start with the fact that the Red Sox have always presented problems for Hughes, given that he's a fly-ball pitcher who gives up more than his share of home runs, especially at Yankee Stadium.
Next look at Hughes' 5.77 ERA since the All-Star break. Coming into Monday, opponents were hitting .341 with a .933 OPS in his previous seven starts.
And surely the Yankees don't like the idea of watching Hughes face David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, who have given him fits over the years. Ortiz is 9-for-22 with two home runs, Ellsbury 6-for-16 and Pedroia has three homers in 27 at-bats. Hughes is 5-7 with a 5.26 ERA against the Red Sox in 13 career starts.
That's why it's time for the Yankees to turn to Huff. He's pitched his way into the mix less than a month removed from Triple-A, and the Yankees have noticed.
"He's pitched really well here, he has," Girardi said.
Girardi declined to speculate whether Huff will replace Hughes, saying, "I haven't made any decisions about changing the rotation."
But when given the chance to publicly support the notion that Hughes will make another start, Girardi avoided answering the question.
Hughes realizes there is a chance that the Yankees will turn elsewhere. He said he was "disappointed'' that the rain cut short his start -- a chance to save his rotation spot -- and he acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding his future.
Having thrown only 20 pitches Monday, Hughes offered to be available out of the bullpen in the coming days. The Yankees should take him up on that by swapping places with Huff, who was 11-8 in 23 starts for the Indians in 2009 and started 52 times for Cleveland from 2009-12.
It was only a few weeks ago that Girardi welcomed Huff back to the majors by saying, "We're going to be using you.'' And Huff said: "Whatever you need, I'll make sure I'm ready for it.''
Next up could be the biggest start of his career.