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Phil Hughes
Ben Reiter
March 26, 2007
THE POCKET ROCKET
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March 26, 2007

Phil Hughes

THE POCKET ROCKET

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LAST THURSDAY in Tampa, the locker between Derek Jeter's and reliever T.J. Beam's was all but empty. Until the previous evening the stall had been used by the Future of the Yankees, but now his nameplate and his belongings were gone, and so was the media throng that had followed him around the major league camp. The only evidence that Phil Hughes had been a member of the 26-time world champions for the preceding four weeks was the midnight blue number 65 jersey hanging on the clothes rod. "You don't take your jersey with you," explained Beam. "They have different jerseys over there."

Over there refers to the minor league camp across Dale Mabry Highway, to which Hughes--viewed by many as the second-best prospect in baseball, behind the Royals' Alex Gordon, and by Yankees fans as something closer to the Second Coming--had been reassigned. Although the Yankees had planned the move all along, it's hard to imagine that they would have so easily sent down Hughes if the 6'5", 220-pound righthander had dominated major league hitters the way he handled Single and Double A batters last year (12--6, 2.16 ERA, 168 strikeouts and 34 walks in 146 innings). He did not.

The cumulative line for Hughes' three spring outings: 4 2/3 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 2 K, 7.71 ERA. He struggled to throw his breaking pitches for strikes, continually fell behind in counts and then was forced to throw the fastballs that hitters were waiting for. "It was kind of unexpected," says Hughes, the 23rd pick of the 2004 draft. "I've never really had a hard time getting ahead of guys."

As manager Joe Torre says, when he begins discussing Hughes's performance in the major league camp, " Phil Hughes--he's got some work to do."

Catcher Jorge Posada, who last spring called Hughes's arm the best in camp, wonders if the 20-year-old Californian has become too comfortable on the mound. "It seems like he was hungrier last year, like he wanted to show people more," Posada says. "He's going to be a very good big league pitcher for a long time, but he's got to remember that he hasn't made it yet."

"Baseball is always going to be that thing that drives me," Hughes says in response. "I want to be the best there is. Whether I show that outwardly or not, it still doesn't change what I feel."

An AL executive warns against extrapolating, from half a game's worth of March work, the future performance of Hughes. "He showed a mid-90s fastball that he throws to both sides of the plate," says the exec, "and signs of a plus curveball." Even the Twins who knocked him around were impressed. "I didn't know he was only 20," says Justin Morneau, the reigning AL MVP. "He was pretty composed out there."

Hughes will start the season at Triple A Scranton, where he will try to develop his changeup as an alternative to the fastball when he's behind in the count. "We'll see him [in the majors] this season," predicts Morneau. Torre is still a believer too. "I told him more than once, 'There's going to be a time when somebody's going to tap you on the shoulder and say, It's your turn,'" the skipper recalls. "And that could come at any time."

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