There was something different about the way Phil Hughes pitched on Tuesday night. He had an edge. Hughes exhibited the body language of a pitcher who expected to win or a pitcher who was weary of having to explain what went wrong. He wanted to make some things go right for the Yankees.
So Hughes was aggressive, throwing his 93-mile per hour fastball to get ahead in counts, and using his slider and his curveball to bury hitters. So Hughes attacked, tossing strike after strike and not relenting when he needed 10 or 11 pitches to finish off one at-bat. So Hughes was resilient, overcoming what could have been a fiasco of a 32-pitch first inning to work seven solid innings.
It was a night where the Yankees played one of their most rewarding and complete games of the season in defeating the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-3. The Yankees rallied to score against David Price, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, on three different occasions. Ichiro Suzuki singled off Price to begin a rally in the eighth and eventually scored the tying run. He followed that by smacking Fernando Rodney's first-pitch fastball, a 99 mph Tic-Tac, for a two-run single that delivered the go-ahead runs. It was the kind of comeback that is memorable, a win that was spiced with timely hitting and some small ball.
But, for all the positives that unfolded for the Yankees on Tuesday, the sight of a reinvigorated Hughes pitching smoothly and confidently was the most important. Hughes allowed two runs in seven innings, matching the numbers he compiled in his last start versus the Arizona Diamondbacks. He threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of 27 batters and also whiffed six Rays, five of them with sliders.
"I'm making progress," Hughes said. "I feel like I can be better."
Hughes is right. He can be better and he needs to be better. Sometimes, observers need to be reminded about the kind of pitcher Hughes, at times, has been. In 2012, Hughes had an 11-start streak in which he was 8-2 with a 3.34 earned run average. In 2010, Hughes began the season 10-1 with a 3.17 ERA. Those are sustained periods of success, evidence that Hughes can be and has been an effective pitcher.
But Hughes has also endured too many stretches of inconsistency as a Yankee, too many starts in which he labored through long innings and failed to put hitters away. While the Yankees hoped that the first-round pick would someday be a No. 1 starter, that hasn't materialized. Before Tuesday's start, Hughes had a 6.43 ERA, making it the third straight season that he had an ERA. of at least 6.00 after his first three starts. That's the wrong kind of consistency.
As I watched Hughes pitch and then listened to his postgame interview, I sensed that even he is frustrated by his detours from reliable to unreliable. On Tuesday, Hughes walked Matt Joyce to open the seventh in a 1-1 game. Joyce eventually scored the go-ahead run when Jose Molina punched an outside fastball to right field for an RBI single. After striking out Molina with sliders, Hughes wanted to speed up Molina's bat with a fastball so he could go back to the slider. But Hughes missed his location with the fastball, a mistake that could have doomed the Yankees.
"I thought the game was over in the seventh after I made that bad pitch," he said. "Fortunately, the guys fought back and got us the win."
The Yankees fought back for the win, but, in his own way, Hughes fought back, too. Hughes was just as impressive as Price, who won 20 games last season. It was one night, but it was a night where Hughes reminded the Yankees of what he can do. Hughes said he can be better. The Yankees believe that. Now he needs to keep showing it, again and again and again.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES