Results tagged ‘ Phil Hughes ’

World Series Game 1 From a Distance

The first game of the 2009 World Series has Jerome in a dissociative state this morning, which is why he’s referring to himself in the third person. Just to be clear, this is in contrast to, say, Shaquille O’Neal or Rickey Henderson, who refer to themselves in the third person as though they are constantly looking in the mirror and admiring icons too great to be enclosed within their mere mortal frames.

Basically, Jerome doesn’t want to be the same guy who went to bed Wednesday night feeling surly and aggravated over the Yankees’ 6-1 loss to the Phillies. In fact, he doesn’t want to get anywhere close to that miserable, foul-mouthed dude. He prefers to avoid negativity as he starts the day.

hughes_250_102909.jpgJerome realizes there are going to be three or four major storylines surrounding the game as the Thursday media cycle gets on its daily roll. The first is Phillies ace Cliff Lee’s dominance over Yankees hitters.

The second is likely to be the failure of the Yankees bullpen mainstays, most especially Phil Hughes, to hold the Phillies’ offense in check after starter CC Sabathia left the game in the eighth, turning a two-run hole into a bridgeless, six-run chasm in just a couple of innings.

The third will be that the occasionally flammable A.J. Burnett being scheduled to start an all-important Game 2 for the Yankees is a nervous, uncertain, pressure-packed proposition.

Fourth … well, the fourth-place topic, or topics, will be a medley of dire comparisons to the Yankees’ weak 2003 World Series performance against Josh Beckett, concerns about the Alex Rodriguez pressing, and colorful Pedro Martinez highlight clips and quotes.

Jerome won’t feel too sorry for the Yanks as the day wears on. They earned all this chatter for themselves. Yes, one can say Lee had something to do with it, and tip one’s cap to him. But since he as much as tipped his cap to himself non-chalanting a Johnny Damon pop-up in the sixth, Jerome will refrain from doing it here. While Thursday morning’s Positive Jerome may not be anything like Thursday night’s wretched, cussing Negative Jerome, he remains susceptible to temptation by the dark side.

Rather than dissect what others already will be picking apart, Jerome is just going make a few quick points this morning. Get in, get out, and then lay low until tonight’s game.

The goat horns Hughes sprouted in Game 5 of the ALCS have fast grown large and unwieldy. As some may recall, Game 5 was when he followed the Yanks’ dramatic come-from-behind, lead-seizing, six-run rally in the seventh by entering the game at the bottom of that frame with two outs, and immediately coughing up a pair of runs to erase their lead and eventually lose them the game.

Hughes has now been a key factor, and arguably the deciding one, in two of the team’s three 2009 postseason losses. That’s pretty darned awful. One can only hope his coaches are privately telling him it’s time to stand tall and throw strikes — to man up — rather than using coach-speak like “too fine” and “mechanical flaws” and “shortening his delivery” to address his failures, because the latter are not causes, but symptoms. They are happening because he’s showing no confidence in himself. You can see it when he takes the mound. It’s in his face and body language. It has to change, because he is an absolutely vital component of the bullpen, which has itself been vital to the Yanks’ success all season.

Okay, that’s it for Hughes. Next up, Mark Teixeira, who’s hitting .186 for the postseason. This even worse than Damon’s .239 postseason batting average, Hideki Matsui’s .242, and Robin Cano’s dismal .211. For sure, Tex is doing better than Nick Swisher, who presently holds a team-low .114 October average. And yes, he’s got a superb glove at first base, but Tony Clark was no slouch at the defensive end, and neither was Doug Mientkiewicz, and no one ever clamored for the Yankees to go out and sign either of them as their regular first baseman.

Teixeira is the team’s No. 3 batter. He is supposed to be a big bopper in the lineup, supposed to drive in Derek Jeter, who is seemingly always on base, with timely hits. But right now he is not hitting at all, and that is killing the Yanks. If that doesn’t change soon, someone will have to drill horn holes in his batting helmet to prevent it from rising too high off the top of his head.

This is also true for the other culprits mentioned above. Time to wake up, fellas. In fact, it’s past time to wake up. Jeter and Rodriguez can’t be expected shoulder the burden for the entire offense the rest of the way.

But Jerome promised he’d make this short and sweet, and he intends to keep that pledge. He moreover doesn’t want to be anything like the ill-tempered, cussing Jerome of Wednesday night vintage, and get himself or anyone else worked up. So he’s going to end on an upbeat note or two.

burnett_250_102909.jpgJerome believes all the yammering you will hear today about Burnett’s fragile psyche is so much noise. The rap on him is largely unfair. He can be wild, true. And we have seen him rattle. But he’s pitched well overall in the postseason, and has also stepped up in big spots, like when he outdueled Beckett in a pivotal series August series against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

A.J.’s tough and talented enough for the stopper’s job. And ought to be better than a diminished Pedro Martinez, who should no longer strike fear into the collective heart of a Major League lineup, his seven-innings of shutout ball against a tepid Dodgers squad in the NLCS notwithstanding. The Yankees ought to be able to knock Pedro out early and get into the Phillies own horn-toting bullpen tonight.

It is worth pointing out that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel only elected to start Martinez in Game 2 because he has lost faith in Cole Hamels, last year’s ace of his staff.

The Game 3 starters will be Hamels for the Phillies and Andy Pettitte for the Yankees. Hamels has a 7.20 ERA for the NLDS and a 6.52 ERA for the NLCS. Pettitte’s numbers in the two American League playoff rounds, by comparison, are at 1.42 and 2.84. And forget the stats, he is Andy Pettitte.

So Sunnyside-Up Jerome likes the Yank’s chances in the next couple of games. He is going to continue keeping Sunnyside-Down Jerome at a distance throughout the day, concentrate on his work, and keep the TV and radio off till approximately eight o’clock tonight. Then he may or may not be at Yankee Stadium to watch the game, but will be definitely be watching it from somewhere.

He optimistically expects to be back to referring to himself in the first person tomorrow.

Two teams standing

A minuscule entry this morning, as I blearily catch up on various deadlines, to congratulate the Yankees on their 40th trip to the World Series.

Thus far 2009 has been a been a year rich in dramatic storylines for the team — a new Stadium’s opening and christening; the arrival of the Big Man, ALCS Most Valuable Player CC “Must-See” Sabathia; the Mark Teixeira show at first base; Derek Jeter breaking Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hits record; Swisher Mohawks; Burnett pie; clubhouse music; ’round-the-clock Joba, Alex Rodriguez finally showing why he’s one of the greatest players in baseball history; Andy Pettitte showing yet again why he’s one of the greatest starting pitchers in Yankee history; Mariano Rivera showing yet again why he’s indisputably the greatest reliever in baseball history, Phil Hughes’ regular season emergence as a deciding force in the bullpen; Joe Girardi’s brilliant crafting and handling of that ‘pen — and occasionally baffling use of it in the postseason; Girardi’s sometimes brilliant, occasionally baffling in-game calls from the bench . . . .

And a whole bunch plot threads I’ve undoubtedly missed here, plus more to come as we launch into the World Series this week.

The disappearance of reliever David Robertson in the ALCS is a question we’ll likely have answered soon, and we can only hope it’s unrelated to the arm problems that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season. Girardi’s use of Joba Chamberlain over Hughes in the seventh inning of the series’ Game 6  — and the warming of Damaso Marte over Phil Coke for a possible lefty-lefty matchup — create questions as to where his trust now extends as he reaches into the ‘pen. And we’ll see have to see whether his itchy, unpredictable finger on the pinch-runner/mound buzzer switch gets him in trouble or, well, stops itching quite as much or erratically as we’ve seen in the first two rounds of postseason play.

Meanwhile, two teams Major League baseball teams are still standing this week, and the Yankees are one of them. It’s been six years.

The team and its fans have reason to celebrate this bright late October morning.

The Ghost of ’04

For two days before Thursday’s ALCS Game Five in Anaheim, I strongly discounted the media drumbeat that a Yankees failure to close out the series that night would evoke the leering specter of 2004’s collapse against the Red Sox in the minds of Yankees fans.

My feelings stemmed from the key differences between this season’s Yankees squad and the one that historically blew a 3-0 lead over its opposition. I was never comfortable with that lead in ’04. Even as the Yankees headed into Boston for three games after taking a 2-0 series advantage, and then pounded the Sox into their shower room in a 19-8 laugher, I worried about the pitching matchups in potential Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium.

kevinbrown_250_102309.jpgThe Sox had Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe in line to start those games. The Yankees had Jon Lieber, followed by basically nobody. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was a candidate for a possible all-or-nothing seventh game, but a very iffy one, as he’d been struggling to recover from a late-season injury. It seemed doubtful that Javier Vzquez, who’d been a huge disappointment in his first and only year with the team, would get the ball. That left the Yankees’ alleged ace going into the season, Kevin Brown, as manager Joe Torre’s likeliest option if the series was extended to its limit.

No Yankees fan in the universe would have chosen to entrust his or her team’s fate with the injury plagued, surly, selfish and ineffective Brown. Most never believed the series would come down to it. The Yankees, after all, had three cracks at putting away the Sox before they reached that critical juncture.

As I said, I was jittery over the prospect all along. For one thing, overconfidence is not one of my personal failings. For another, I had always felt the Yankees’ unwise failure to re-sign Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season had birthed a big, vicious dog that would sink its teeth into them where and when it hurt the most.

I believed then, and still believe, that the Yankees would have never had their 2004 championship aspirations murdered by the Red Sox if Pettitte had been on the team. If they’d held onto Pettitte, I think there’s a good chance they would have won their fifth World Series title in less than a decade.

It’s poetic to me that Pettitte, with his hawkish stare and Texas-sized heart, a Yankee to the marrow rightfully back in the place where he belongs, will be taking the ball for the Yankees in a vital Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS in hopes of staving off yet another apocalyptic Game 7.

But six years have passed since Pettitte threw what would prove to be the last pitch as a Yankee for far too long in the 2003 World Series. He is not the same pitcher now as he was back then, and Yankee Stadium is not the same place as it was back then. His cut fastball has lost several miles of velocity, and he relies more on off-speed pitches and precision accuracy than he used to. The cutter remains his best weapon, the one gets him his groundball outs. If it isn’t sharp, though, it can lead to hard-hit fly balls. And in Yankee Stadium, now, fly balls can travel great distances. This is probably the major reason Pettitte’s 2009 record on the road was better than it was at home.

There’s still reason to be confident–not overconfident–that Pettitte can do his part to send the Angels flying home on droopy wings Saturday night. That the Yankees will close out the series behind him, pop their champagne corks and go on to tackle the Phillies in the World Series. He was excellent overall throughout the regular season, and found renewed success at Yankee Stadium back around June or July, very uncoincidentally when he rediscovered his feel for the cutter.

But even if he pitches well, Pettitte is going to need help. If 2009 is not to resemble 2004 in its outcome — albeit with the current opposition wearing a more garish shade of red than the Boston team — it would be helpful for Phil Hughes to pitch with the courage and confidence we saw from him all season rather than look like Tom Gordon reincarnated on the mound.

It’s okay for Hughes to tell the media, as he did after Thursday night’s loss, that he was “too fine” with his pitches when he entered the game with two outs in the seventh inning, surrendering two runs after the Yankees staged what could have been a comeback for the ages. I wouldn’t have expected him to say Anaheim’s thunder sticks and Rally Monkey overwhelmed him, as the entire postseason seems to have done thus far. But “too fine” is latter day coach-speak, a positive way to say a pitcher isn’t throwing strikes because he’s shying away from contact, which is itself a polite way of saying Hughes is looking scared right now. That has to stop, and at once, or the tomorrows for the Yankees may be numbered. Coach-speak doesn’t win series. Sometimes I think all does is provide a player with a psychological cushion when a hard jolt of reality would serve him better.

joba_250_102309.jpgWhile Hughes may have taken the loss, there were goats aplenty in the pitching staff. The guy one New York Times reporter calls “the pitcher who used to be Joba Chamberlain” was ineffective in the eighth inning, giving up a leadoff double and a single, putting men on first and third with one out, leaving it to the great Mariano Rivera to enter in a non-save situation and hold the Yankees to a one-run deficit. Starter A.J. Burnett would wear the biggest set of horns, first putting the Yankees in a four-run hole before we’d even carried our chips and soda in from the kitchen, and then putting two men on base in the home half of seventh after the Yankees’ breathtaking rally at the top of the inning, the one we all thought would start the corks popping in California.

Offensively, it’s unfortunate the Nick Swisher succumbed to his bte noire, the hyper-adrenalized dark beast of impatience that undermines his natural talent for identifying the strike zone in tight spots. YES postgame analyst Ken Singleton pointed out that Swisher would have been well advised to take a cue from former Yankee Bernie Williams in his bases loaded, ninth inning at-bat, and repeatedly step out of the box to throw off the timing of the Angels’ shaky closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes was self-destructing, and Swisher had run up a full count on him. A little psychological gamesmanship might have led to ball four, a tie game, and a very different final result.

As fans await Saturday night’s penultimate game of the series, it should be comforting to know that Pettitte will be on the mound. It is an equal comfort that CC Sabathia, the anti-Kevin Brown, will follow him should things come down to a Game 7.

The 2009 Yankees aren’t the 2004 Yankees. I think they will pull this one off.

But I would be lying if I denied that the malevolent specter of the ’04 debacle didn’t reach its cold, ragged-clawed fingers into my heart last night. After insisting all day that the press was summoning up a false demon to sell newspapers papers and keep radio listeners near the dial, I realized I was wrong and they were right. Burnett spoke of leaving it all on the field after his losing effort. That’s all fine and dandy. But I now realize I’m no different than countless other Yankees fans who left something the field at the Old Lady Across the Street after Game 7 of 2004’s ALCS. Burnett didn’t do anything Thursday night to help us reclaim it. And as I went to bed, I couldn’t shake the image of Hughes looking like Gordon on
the mound amid a roaring sea of red.

In my mind’s eye, there was something very scary and dangerous hovering over him.

The Fix

nationals_275_061909.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
It would be tough to pin the Yankees’ home series loss to the Washington Nationals, who are mostly known for being MLB’s current answer to the Bad News Bears, on any particular member of the team. Basically they played lousy in general.
 
If you watched that series, though, and then consider that the Yanks really should have lost two out of three home games to a depleted Mets squad last weekend, and were swept by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway before that — a stretch of nine games during which they’ve stumbled from being one game up on the Sox to three behind them for the AL East division lead — it’s hard not to think that the team needs some fixing.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the fix or fixes might be. And the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to the deficiencies in right field represented by Nick Swisher, and the spot in the starting rotation occupied by Joba Chamberlain.

Of course, Swisher isn’t responsible for the team’s collective offensive slump. I think that has more to do with Alex Rodriguez not hitting right now than anything. His bat is supposed to be the major noisemaker in the middle of their batting order. When it is silent, the aggregate thunder in Yankee bats goes from a loud roar to isolated rumbles.

Rodriguez has a long track record as one of the most prolific run producers in baseball. You can’t point to age or general physical condition as reasons for his struggles. But he is recovering from serious hip surgery and has played every game since his hurried return. Based on what we’ve seen of him, it’s reasonable to think that with some rest, and recovery time, he’ll round into form.

Or at any rate, he’d better for the sake of his team. He isn’t going anywhere.

Likewise based on track record, however, Swisher is a problem that won’t go away until he does, at least as an everyday player. In a sense it isn’t his fault. With the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, he was supposed to be half of a right field platoon that included Xavier Nady. But Nady got injured, and remains injured, and that has left Swisher a regular starting member of the lineup whose historical weaknesses have become increasingly apparent.

His career numbers aren’t the worst you’ll ever see, but they aren’t good. In 2004, his first year in the Majors, he hit .250. The next year he averaged .236. The next year he hit .254. His best BA was .262 in 2007. His worst was .219 in 2008. He’s now batting .244, a career average.

Yes, I know about the walks. The pitches taken. The slugging and on-base percentages. I’ve read all sorts of numbers.

In fact, I was reading this analysis of Swisher by a hardcore Sabermetrics guy named Peter Bendix. It was written in June 2008 when Swisher was with the Chicago White Sox. A year ago, Bendix wrote how Swisher’s failure to deliver was basically just bad luck. Bendix’s calculations indicated a sharp upturn in his performance was in the offing.

Wrote Bendix of last year’s Nick: “To begin with, Swisher has been very unlucky on balls in play. His 22.5% line-drive percentage produces an expected BABIP of .345. However, his actual BABIP is a miserable .244. If we adjust his batting line to account for the hits he should have, his line becomes .271/.371/.359.”

I looked up the meaning of BAPIP last night, not being familiar with the statistic. A stat-head website called the Hardball Times defines it as Batting Average on Balls in Play, “a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). The exact formula we use is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF) This is similar to DER, but from the batter’s perspective.”

I didn’t look up DER. I haven’t checked Swisher’s VORP or PECOTA or any of that stuff. I don’t mean to sound disparaging of the numbers game. Bill James has certainly helped the Boston Red Sox find players who can hit the ball well at their park.
But I have to go with my observational and analytical strengths. For better or worse, I rely on what I see with my eyes and more basic statistics. And when I see Swisher play, I see a guy who plays with a lot of energy, but too often allows that energy to drive him when it his job to harness it. He runs the bases recklessly. He seems to be largely unaware of cutoff men. In clutch situations, he tends to swing for the fences when he simply needs to get on base.

And he’s hitting .244.

I like Swisher on the bench. I’ll take his hustle and energy in small doses and think there are situations when he can be useful to the team.

But the Yanks need to figure out what they are going to get out of Nady this season. My guess is that their expectations are minimal. If that’s the case, they need another solution to the right field problem.

That’s the Swisher part. Chamberlain is next.

I’m weary of the Joba fight. Those who lean toward numbers guys will point to his 3.89 ERA and argue that five innings of that every fifth day is preferable to one or two innings of relief several times a week.

joba_250_061909.jpgMy response is that watching Joba pitch as a starter has become excruciating. He gets into deep counts, he walks batters, he allows droves of them on base,and he depletes the bullpen by failing to give length. He puts his defense on its heels and gives teams like the Washington Nationals the sense that they have a fighting chance.

Opposing teams don’t fear Chamberlain right now, nor should they. Where is his power fastball? His slider? His velocity is now fairly average. It largely has been for a while. The lightning in his fingertips has become erratic, and it’s anyone’s guess whether it will return with any constancy.

Chamberlain has no proven track record as a starting pitcher. Chien-Ming Wang does. Yet Wang is given ultimatums while the Yankee hierarchy continues to disregard Chamberlain’s falling effectiveness and send him out to pitch as a member of the rotation.

Meanwhile, Wang continues to improve and make a case that he should remain in the rotation. And Phil Hughes continues to throw multiple innings of relief with snap and efficiency that suggest he warrants another shot at starting.

If Wang looks good after another start or two, Chamberlain should go to the bullpen. The time when innings restrictions will put him there is approaching anyway, so why wait? Maybe he’ll regain his lightning as a reliever. Maybe next season, with some work, he will become the winning starter the Yankees envision.

Right now the Yankees should be looking to win in 2009 and think about giving Hughes his shot.

We can go by the numbers (assuming they’re being interpreted without skew). Or we can use them wisely to inform what we see. I’d suggest the latter.
 
A lot of us can follow recipes, but that doesn’t make us master chefs.

Plots, subplots and spirit pie

yankeeswin_250_060509.jpgAs someone who earns his bread and butter writing novels, I’m always seeking narrative threads to play with: the plots and subplots that drive a story forward and create its textures and dramatic tension. I generally know where I’m starting out and have a rough idea where I’m heading. But writing a book takes anywhere between six months to a year. That’s a long time to live with characters on a daily basis. As they move within a set of circumstances I’ve thrust on them, they inevitably evolve and do things that surprise me … or do them in surprising ways.

It’s these twists and turns that make a story interesting for me — and hopefully for my readers — even as it moves toward the general resolution I’ve envisioned.

A baseball season’s a lot the same in my eyes. At one end there’s Opening Day, at the other the final pitch of the World Series. But between those fixed points lie constant, fascinating nuances and surprises. Which teams make it to the finish line? Which individual players? How do they get there? What happens to them along the way, and leaves some standing and others casualties of war?

There’s something about baseball that’s more richly textured than any other sport. Something about its pace — nine innings a game, 162 games played out over six long months, the give and tug within and between teams over that period — that heightens a season’s tension as it progresses and gives each one an epic quality. I think it’s no coincidence that most writers I know who are sports fans tend to love baseball above all others. The storylines always fascinating and unpredictable.

I started out for Yankee Stadium Thursday morning meaning to examine Chien-Ming Wang’s reinsertion into the Yankees’ starting rotation and its impact on Phil Hughes, the pitcher whose slot Wang was taking. But the three-hour match between the Yankees and Texas Rangers became a humming tapestry loaded with intriguing, interactive plot threads. Here are my thoughts on several of them, starting with the one I’d meant to write about in the first place.

WANG/HUGHES
The moment Joba Chamberlain took Adam Jones’ hard line drive to his knee on May 21, the seasons of Wang and Hughes irreversibly changed. Wang was headed for Pawtucket where he’d been scheduled to complete an extended rehab assignment when he was ordered to turn around and head back to New York. With Chamberlain’s ability to make his next start in question, the Yanks wanted an insurance policy — and Wang became just that.

It turned out that Chamberlain was able to take his normal turn on the mound. It also turned out that the Hughes, long the gem of the Yankees’ farm system, was pitching well with consistency for the first time in his brief Major League career. With Wang out of options, the Yankees could not send him down to the Minor Leagues without placing him on waivers and giving every team in baseball the chance to acquire him.

Wang consequently went into the bullpen with an indeterminate long-relief role that left his progress stalled. He would need repetitions — regular work, in other words — to sharpen his delivery and rebuild his stamina and confidence. But he wasn’t going to get that doing irregular mop-up duty.

The Yankees did not have a plan, or so it seemed for a while. But five increasingly strong innings of work from Wang out of the ‘pen apparently compelled them to formulate one.

And so the announcement was made less than 24 hours before Thursday’s game. Wang would start in place of the scheduled CC Sabathia and Hughes would be moved to the bullpen.

In his pregame press conference Thursday morning, manager Joe Girardi said this of their decision on Wang:

“He’s won 46 games in two-and-a-half years. I’m not sure how many guys in our clubhouse can boast that. So, I mean, this is not just a guy that we’re trying out. This is a guy we believe in, and {who} has been the ace of the staff here for the last three or four years. “

As has been previously discussed in this column, Wang is also a precious commodity in the new home run-friendly Yankee Stadium — a power sinkerballer who, at his best, can elicit groundballs and strikeouts to combine for a very high rate of efficiency. Besides racking up outs, that efficiency has a fringe benefit of getting him deep into games. In 2006, his first full season in the Majors, he ranked fifth overall in the number of innings pitched (218) in the American League, falling between Roy Halladay and John Lackey. The next year he fell to 21st (199 innings) but was still in the upper percentile of AL pitchers and only two spots behind Josh Beckett.

In fact, Wang’s 2007 drop off in ranking was due more to other pitchers having above-par years than Wang having a below average one. Before Wang’s 2008 season abruptly ended by a Lisfranc injury in mid-June, he was off to a tremendous start, having thrown 95 innings and racked up 54 strikeouts to go 8-2 in the win-loss columns.

As Girardi implied, Hughes, for all the growth he’s shown of late, has achieved nothing close to that success in his young career. Wang has not only earned his chance at a return to the starting rotation, but was in danger of losing arm strength and regressing in the bullpen. This is best for Wang and — in the short term — likely best for the ballclub. So, for now, the rotation is where he’ll be. And it is Hughes to the bullpen … and perhaps to the Minor Leagues upon reliever Brian Bruney’s eventual return from the disabled list.

But it’s an imperfect solution.

“I see using him in any role,” Girardi said of Hughes. “Some distance, maybe. Seventh and eighth, maybe. I could use him for one inning … He could be used at any time.”

Girardi also emphasized that the ballclub considers Hughes its “sixth starter” – a pitcher who can instantly be inserted into the starting rotation should one of its regulars become injured. The drawback of an extended bullpen stay for Hughes, however, is identical to the situation Wang was facing. It would diminish his stamina and make a quick jump back into a starter role difficult.

This is why Yankees GM Brian Cashman suggested on the ESPN radio Wednesday that Hughes might be sent down to Scranton if Bruney comes back to the club healthy. This reasoning is understandable and arguably sound. But while maintaining physical durability, will a return to Triple-A retard Hughes’s mental progress? There’s something that seems to have clicked with him besides more consistent command of his pitching arsenal — and that’s the ability to out-think veteran Major League hitters with his pitch selection. Hughes has advanced far beyond the level of skill need to get out Minor Leaguers. He has broken a barrier that impeded his success for the entire 2008 season. Will returning him to a setting where he’s faces inferior competition turn cause him to lose the edge he’s finally, and so recently, developed?

It remains to be seen. With six legitimate starting pitchers for five spots in their rotation, the Yankees are dealing with the “good problem” of baseball clich.

Still a problem is a problem.

teixeira_arod_250.jpgTEIXEIRA/A-ROD
In the fifth inning, with the Yankees trailing by three runs, Mark Teixeira hit a double to clear the bases and tie the game at 5, sparking the team’s 19th comeback win of the season. The hit was hardly a blast off his bat, but looked more
like a shot off a pool cue as the ball bounced over third base, hugged the left field line and went rolling on into the outfield as three Yankees runners darted home to score.

“That’s for all the times you hit a ball to the warning track or a line drive right at somebody,” Teixeira said afterward with a grin.

Watching that game-changing play from the press box, it struck me that Teixeira has taken New York by storm with his glove and bat. He seems to do everything right when it counts the most. Two days before, after getting drilled by Rangers pitcher Vicente Padilla, he sparked a lethargic Yankee offense that was trailing 3-2 to a now-celebrated seven-run rally by breaking up a double play with a hard, clean slide into second base. Showing a grit and fire that’s perceived as having been lacking in recent Yankee teams, Teixeira drew well-deserved roars from the stands. He not only took a large step toward defining his identity in pinstripes, but also the spirit of the current group of Bronx Bombers.

It’s more than a slightly interesting footnote that the batter who started the potential double play with a groundout to second base was Alex Rodriguez, who’d been having a terrible series. Rodriguez had not only been striking out, flying out, and hitting into DPs left and right, but he’d been doing it at the worst of times, killing rallies by the bunch rather than starting them.

After Thursday’s game, a longtime clubhouse insider lamented that fans who’d jumped back on the Let’s-Boo-Alex bandwagon weren’t recognizing that his return to the lineup — and specifically his presence behind Teixeira in the lineup — following hip surgery and a hurried rehab are a large part of the reason Teixeira is getting better pitches to hit these days. And that the team’s streaking to the best record in the American League after a depressing start coincided with Rodriguez’s activation from the disabled list.

I disagree with that insider. I think the boo-birds are fully aware of Rodriguez’s importance to the team. I think they realize the Yanks were floundering before he returned, and I think they would gag and clutch their chests if he were to suddenly reinjure himself, opening up third base for the platoon of Angel Berroa, Ramiro Pena and perhaps eventually a healed Cody Ransom.

Because of his salary, and because of his occasional forays from the sports to the gossip pages, A-Rod is simply an easy target of frustrations when things go wrong for the team, and sometimes, maybe, when those anonymously jeering him have had a bad day at work.

I’m glad Teixeira has been welcomed to the Bronx for doing things right. Too bad people won’t get off Rodriguez’s back — and be as appreciative of him as Teixeira has vocally and visibly been in the Yankees dugout and clubhouse.

cabrera_250_060509.jpgMELKY AND THE SPIRITS
After his game winning two-run homer in the eighth inning, Melky Cabrera — who’s gotten more big late-game and walkoff hits than I can count this season and is hitting .483 in close and late game situations — managed to duck an A.J. Burnett pie while being interviewed for the Yankees radio postgame show by Suzyn Waldman.

I’d lingered in the press box to see whether or not a pie would be introduced to Melky’s face, having debated my colleague Jon Lane on whether eighth inning hits were pie-worthy as opposed to walk-offs exclusively. Jon didn’t think so. I did. I won, and hustled down to the Yank clubhouse to boast.

A while after the whipped cream flew, I was standing in front of Cabrera’s locker when a member of the press jokingly asked if he felt he’d become a home run hitter like A-Rod or Teixeira. Smiling, Cabrera modestly replied through his translator, Yankees team adviser Ray Negron, that he was a line drive hitter just looking to put the ball in play.

The reporter followed through by asking how the ball managed to get out of the park the way it did.

Cabrera simply shrugged.

“It’s the spirits,” he said in all earnestness.

Before heading into the elevator up to the press box, and then again inside it , one reporter found Cabrera’s remark amusing enough to launch into what he presumably thought was a derisive comedic routine about it.

“Did you hear what he said? The spirits! Why not the jet stream!” he mocked.

A few occupants of the crowded car chuckled with him. I didn’t. Nor did I bother reminding the reporter — whom I’ve never seen hit a home run — that the jet stream doesn’t blow out to deep left field, where the home run ball landed. Cabrera has been nothing less than magical for his team — a magic for which his commitment and hard work have opened the door.

If he says it’s the spirits, it’s the spirits.