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Hughes thrilled after allowing three HRs, one a walk-off

Despite a shaky outing Monday, Phil Hughes seems

Despite a shaky outing Monday, Phil Hughes seems to be a lock to win the Yankees' fifth starter job. (Feb. 26, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It appears as if the only thing that will stop Phil Hughes from being named the Yankees' fifth starter is an act of Congress. And Congress is busy with other matters at the moment.

Hughes allowed three home runs to the Phillies yesterday, including a walk-off blast by light-hitting former Met Wilson Valdez in the Yankees' 9-7 loss at Bright House Field.

But instead of hanging heads, the Yankees acted as if Hughes had cemented his assumed lead over Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin in the race for the fifth spot.

"I know you're going to see the linescore and you're going to see four runs [allowed], but he threw the ball a lot better than those four runs," Joe Girardi said. "I thought it was the best he had thrown. Take away a few pitches. It's unfortunate it ended the way it did, but I thought it was the best stuff he's had."

Hughes had to admit it was weird to be so happy after an outing in which he walked off the field a loser. But he had crackling stuff, including the best changeup he's ever shown, and chalked up two of the home runs to wind that was blowing out to all fields. Hughes allowed five hits with no walks and six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings of relief.

"It's hard to swallow three home runs and seem like I was happy with the way I threw," he said. "I really was."

Girardi said he expects to announce a decision "Thursday morning or Friday morning." Unless Yankees brass has a major change of heart, Hughes should enter the rotation, with Chamberlain becoming Mariano Rivera's main setup man.

"We're going to discuss it in the next couple of days," Girardi said. "We've got to start to iron some things out. We've talked about wanting a decision to get the guys to the bullpen who are going to the bullpen."

Chief among those guys appears to be Chamberlain, who threw five innings Monday in an intrasquad game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. He allowed two runs and six hits to a rotating band of batters that included major-leaguers Randy Winn and Marcus Thames. He walked one, struck out one and induced three double-play balls.

Like Hughes, Chamberlain was working on his changeup, a pitch he might have to stick in his back pocket if he's pitching in the eighth inning instead of the first. Hughes believes he needs more than just fastball-cutter-curve to fulfill the promise he has shown in spurts as a starter. He, Girardi and catcher Francisco Cervelli were positively giddy about the changeup.

"Very bueno,'' Cervelli said.

Hughes got what he thought was his first-ever strikeout on a changeup when he fanned DeWayne Wise in the ninth.

Hughes entered the game in the fifth and allowed a first-pitch laser of a home run to Ben Francisco. (No help from the wind there.) The next batter, Dane Sardinha, crushed the next pitch to leftfield, where Brett Gardner made a leaping catch at the wall.

The second homer was Sardinha's wind-aided opposite-field shot in the eighth. Valdez, who played in 41 games with the 2009 Mets, ended it with a two-run shot with two outs in the ninth.

Hughes shook it off quickly and is looking forward to Girardi's announcement of the decision he hopes will go his way. "I feel like this is my time," he said. If an outing in which he gives up three home runs helps his chances, it probably is.

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