By definition, Phil Hughes fell short of a quality start Tuesday night, thanks to a two-strike curveball he bounced off the foot of Matt Wieters with two outs in the sixth. But this time, the really bad stuff didn't happen until he was in the clubhouse, and with the unsettled state of the Yankees' rotation, we'll count that as progress.
Call it one to build on. Hughes finished April with a 7.88 ERA, and it's not as if he climbed into the Cy Young race by keeping the Yankees close for a night. But in reverting to a reliever mentality, which had him rely mostly on his mid-90s fastball and mid-70s curveball, Hughes regained some of his manager's confidence.
"I thought he was better," Joe Girardi said. "I thought he had better command of his fastball. I thought his breaking ball was sharper. I thought less balls leaked across the plate."
Less, but not all. Hughes served up a pair of homers -- giving him seven in only 19 innings -- and a two-run shot by J.J. Hardy in the third was the crusher. After a leadoff walk to the No. 9 hitter, Robert Andino, Hughes struck out Endy Chavez with a nasty curve. But with an 0-and-1 count to Hardy, he left a 91-mph fastball in a dangerous place. "That's got to be either on the black in or off the plate in," Hughes said, "and I just yanked it pretty much down the middle."
The earlier home run to Chris Davis, who turned on a 94-mph fastball, he could live with. "I really can't nitpick that one too much," Hughes said.
Fresh off last week's catastrophe in Texas, Hughes showed signs of being a capable starter again, and that's something that Freddy Garcia failed to do before he was bounced to the bullpen Sunday. The long shadow of Andy Pettitte still haunts the back end of the Yankees' rotation. Hughes seems to be out of that danger zone for now.
"Obviously, he's getting to the point where he's going to be ready to go and I have to pull my weight around here," Hughes said. "That's the bottom line. I try not to worry about other people, or other situations, and just worry about what I need to do to contribute and stay with this team."
After Hardy's blast, Hughes retired 10 of the next 11. But he nailed Wieters with his 100th pitch, and as the Orioles catcher trotted to first base, Girardi headed up the dugout steps.
The Yankees trailed 3-1 at the time. It wasn't his fault that Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira looked hopeless against Orioles starter Brian Matusz, who entered Tuesday night riding a 12-game losing streak.
For Hughes, the final score wasn't quite as important as a competitive effort, which may have been attributed to a grip-it-and-rip-it approach discussed with pitching coach Larry Rothschild. In examining video from his days as a reliever, the two talked about switching to more of an "attack mode" for Tuesday night's start. That included stripping down his repertoire -- fewer cutters and changeups -- and that mind-set worked.
"I think it's just aggressiveness, tempo, and an all-out attitude," Hughes said. "I felt like for the most part, it was successful. If I was going to get beat, it was going to be with my two best pitches."
Hughes has a 1.44 ERA in 49 career relief appearances, and during his high point as a starter, he went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA, back in 2010. That still seems like a long time ago, but Hughes has the Royals next, and he should shave off a few more percentage points from his 7.48 ERA. His rotation spot, for now, appears safe.
"I think there's always pressure to perform, whether there's guys waiting to come up or whatever the situation is," Hughes said. "There's always that way in the back of your mind. But the first thing you have to worry about is going out there and being successful and pitching well. That's really all I try to worry about."
Perhaps soon, the Yankees won't have to worry much about Hughes, either.