The New York Yankees have a lot standing between them and the playoffs. They trail three teams in their division and four teams in the Wild Card race, and as if that isn’t enough, Phil Hughes stands in their way as well.
Hughes lost again Monday night, for the fourth time in five starts, dragging the Yankees 4.5 games behind the Oakland A’s for the second Wild Card spot. Despite taking the hill on the road, where he has found some whiff of success this season, Hughes turned in a typically pedestrian performance, lasting just 4 2/3 innings and surrendering five runs.
By the time he left the game the Yankees were trailing 5-2, and any momentum they may have gained from an Alex Rodriguez homerun an inning earlier had quickly evaporated. Indeed, as Hughes walked off the mound without pitching through the 5th inning for the tenth time this season, he took the Yankees’ chances of winning with him.
It’s something he has done all year long. With the loss Monday night, Hughes fell to 4-13 on the season, good for a ghastly .236 winning percentage. Because he is one of the few Yankees who has remained healthy since April, he has pitched every fifth day for five months straight, totaling 25 starts on the year. 25 starts. 4 wins. The Major League average for pitchers with 25 stars is nine wins.
And, man, wouldn’t five extra wins go a long way for the Yankees now.
As it is, they have salvaged nine wins out of his 25 starts, but only by heroic efforts. In the games they have won that Hughes has started, they have scored an average of 5.5 runs. And in the games that Hughes has won outright, they have scored an average of 7.
Can’t you just hear Joe Girardi? Okay boys, Phil’s pitching today, so let’s go out there and score 18 runs to ensure a W.
It’s an impossible way to hit. An at-bat in the first inning feels like an at-bat in the ninth inning, the offense trying frantically to score runs the way a panicked coastline homeowner might batten down the hatches as a hurricane approaches. It’s no longer a matter of if Phil Hughes implodes, but when.
The Yankees, the long-shots for October that they are, cannot survive these acts of sabotage much longer. Everyone on that team needs to be doing something, anything, to help them win games and Hughes is doing just the opposite. He’s not simply neglecting to pull his weight, á la Joba Chamberlain, but dragging his feet too, and asking his teammates to pick him up.
Sometimes, they do. But as it is now, the team has too much to overcome to worry about one of their own. As far as they’re concerned, he’s supposed to be on their side. If he can’t do his part in pinstripes, if he can’t swim to shore himself without clinging on to everyone else, then he should be left behind.
Well according to Girardi, no. After the latest debacle Monday night, the manager maintained that “right now, he’s in our rotation. We haven’t talked about taking him out.”
If Joe wishes to let Hughes bring the team down with him, that’s his prerogative. And with Michael Pineda and David Phelps both recently suffering setbacks in their rehab, there certainly isn’t a bevy of alternative options. But something has to be done to lessen this drag on the club’s race to October, and it can’t involve more side sessions with pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
It has to involve change.
Look no further than the pitcher who replaced Hughes tonight. David Huff was promoted to the Yankees on August 15 and has since pitched in three games, registering 8 2/3 innings with just two hits against. He has not allowed a run. Hughes, by comparison, has allowed six runs and ten hits in his past 8 2/3 innings.
Though Huff was brought up to serve as a middle relief pitcher, he has the arm – and the history – to be a starter. He started 12 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, posting a 3.84 ERA and an impressive 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And the success he’s had in the Majors has come against the Red Sox and the Blue Jays, two of the highest scoring teams in baseball.
Hughes’ next scheduled start is Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, a game that, even five days in advance, the Yankees must have. In his two starts against the O’s this year, Hughes has a 7.00 ERA, thanks in large part to five (!) homeruns against in just nine innings pitched. As one might expect, the Yankees won neither of those starts.
It’s hard to know where the Yankees will be come Sunday, but one thing is clear: they will need a win even more desperately than they did the day before. As will be the case ten games down the road, and then 15, and then 20. With only a little baseball left to play and a lot of ground to make up, each game is more important than the last.
So why keep trotting out Phil Hughes, if all he does is reign the team in just as they’re ready to race off? Why not take a chance on Huff, or Adam Warren again, or anybody with a contract and an arm? If you gave “anybody with a contract and an arm” 25 starts, odds are he’d have four wins by now too. Maybe even five.
At the very least, removing Hughes from the rotation removes one of the many obstacles in the Yankees’ path to the postseason. Because at this point with Hughes, we can Phil in the blank every time: Loss.