Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes (Aug. 4, 2010)

Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes (Aug. 4, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

Alex Rodriguez returned to the lineup Sunday and the Yankees' eight-game winning streak was stopped cold by the Blue Jays.

We could make a joke about cause and effect, but that would be lame.

Besides, A-Rod did go 2-for-5 with an RBI before striking out for the final out in a 7-3 loss.

No, Sunday's game was mostly about Phil Hughes. The 16-game winner allowed three home runs - the first two on 0-and-2 pitches - and six runs in six innings.

"Two 0-2 mistakes," Hughes said. "That just can't happen."

Barring an epic collapse, the Yankees have 25 games left before Game 1 of the American League Division Series beckons.

CC Sabathia will pitch that day. It's the identity of the Game 2 starter that is unclear. And the Game 3 starter. And unless the schedule allows Sabathia to come back, the Game 4 starter.

So while A-Rod's return might get the headlines, and Nick Swisher's knee is a minor concern, and Derek Jeter is in a fierce slump, the only story that really matters around the Yankees is what Hughes, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez do in the next month. Can two of them emerge?

The Yankees have a deep, versatile lineup. The arrival of Kerry Wood and the emergence of Boone Logan have settled down the bullpen. Sabathia is pitching as well as anyone in baseball.

But the Yankees' postseason success almost always comes down to starting pitching. It did in 2009, when Sabathia, Pettitte and Burnett started every game.

Pettitte is expected to start a minor-league game Wednesday. One more tweak of his troublesome groin will make his October availability iffy.

Manager Joe Girardi can't seem to yank Vazquez out of the rotation or a game fast enough. Burnett needs a good outing Monday to prove that his six-inning, three-run performance against the Athletics wasn't a mirage.

That's why Hughes is so vital. He conceivably could be the Yankees' No. 2 starter in October. And Sunday was not encouraging.

"We need to get him back on track," Girardi said, "because he's extremely important to us."

Hughes gave up a two-run bomb to Vernon Wells in the first inning, a two-run blast to Aaron Hill in the third and a solo shot to John Buck in the sixth. It's not a crime to do that, of course - the Blue Jays lead the majors with 208 home runs.

Hughes' season ERA is 4.29. His win total is a product of a great start to the season and terrific run support (5.3 per start). He is not getting better as the season winds down.

In his last 20 starts, Hughes' ERA is 5.26. Burnett's 20-start ERA is 5.85. Vazquez's is 4.57.

"It seems like we're playing extremely well," Girardi said. "You can always find something that you can do better . . . They've been somewhat inconsistent, yeah, but we're finding ways to win, they're finding ways to win."

Can the Yankees win in the postseason without good starting pitching? Sure. But it's more likely they won't. The best example of that was in 2002, when they lost in four games to the Angels in the ALDS with a starting rotation that was so deep on paper that Orlando Hernandez spent the series in the bullpen.

In that series, Roger Clemens, Pettitte, Mike Mussina and David Wells combined to go 0-3 with a 10.39 ERA.

The 2010 team - even with A-Rod healthy and raking - won't survive that. It's probably why general manager Brian Cashman put in a waiver claim on Dodgers lefthander Ted Lilly recently.

The Yankees didn't trade for Lilly, obviously, but the attempt betrays a sense of uneasiness about their rotation. A legitimate sense if Hughes et al don't get themselves straightened out before the leaves start turning.