Phil Hughes delivers a pitch in the bullpen during spring...

Phil Hughes delivers a pitch in the bullpen during spring training at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. (Feb. 16, 2013) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Not that Sunday's game here was irrelevant but, barring an injury to one of the few regulars on the trip, the most significant activity relating to the Yankees took place 2 1/2 hours north in Tampa.

That was where, early in the morning, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera threw simulated games and Phil Hughes threw a baseball for the first time in nearly two weeks.

The reports from all three were positive. For Hughes, though, the clock ticking down to the regular season might be working against him.

"No issues," said Hughes, sidelined with two bulging discs in his upper back since covering first base in practice Feb. 18. "So it's a positive step."

But even though he said he was pain-free, Hughes didn't contradict Joe Girardi's comment from earlier in the week that it's "possible" he could miss the start of the regular season.

"Obviously, I can't have any setbacks," Hughes said. "And I've sort of looked at the dates, but I just have to take it a day at a time . . . I have to get four, five starts, and obviously every day not throwing and on the mound is another day where it's harder to get going again. So obviously, I have to take it slow, but it's not the worst thing in the world to miss a little time now than have this be an issue going forward."

Neither of the veteran pitchers had any issues.

"Everything's good," Rivera said after a 21-pitch inning.

The 43-year-old closer added that his exhibition debut very well could be the next step, perhaps as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday.

"I think we are ready to do that," he said.

Of Rivera being ready for a game, Girardi said: "It's OK with me. Just kind of letting him go at his own pace."

Rivera looked sharp while facing Matt Diaz and Francisco Arcia. At one point, Diaz, looking like so many other hitters flummoxed by Rivera's cutter, turned on his way out of the batter's box and yelled, "How did you throw that thing?"

Indeed, Rivera appears ready to give his surgically repaired right knee the ultimate test, or at least the best version of one before the regular season.

"I've been waiting 10 months. I can wait for another few days," Rivera said. "I just wait patiently. It will be exciting when I'm there, but I've been waiting a long time. No rush."

Pettitte threw a 20-pitch inning before Rivera took the mound, then threw a 14-pitch second inning after the closer was done.

In spring training in 2010 and again last year, when he came back from retirement, Pettitte preferred simulated games early on in place of real ones. Especially on a day like Sunday, when the option was a long ride south to Fort Myers.

"Over the past few years, it seems I feel better with this," said Pettitte, 40, who expects to throw one more simulated game before trying the real thing. "Trying to get on a bus and maybe not having a hot tub to get in and heat up the way I want to and stuff like that. So this has been good. It's worked out well for me and I feel like I'm working.

"Obviously, nothing can simulate a real game, but mentally, I feel like I'm getting in a pretty good place."

More Yankees headlines

Newsday LogoYour Island. Your Community. Your News.Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months