|Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen hits an RBI-single off New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia in the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)|
Challenged, Hughes admits last year `a failure'
TAMPA, Fla.—Phil Hughes knew without being told that his physical conditioning had to improve.
"For me, last year was a failure and I didn't want to do that again," he said, "so I made sure I had no excuses coming into spring. I was ready to go. I was strong. It's all on me. At the end of the day, I have to want it."
Before the game, Joe Girardi detailed his unhappiness with Hughes' physique last year. The Yankees manager rarely goes public with criticism of one of his players.
Hughes became a dominant pitcher in 2010 when he went 18-8 and was picked for the AL All-Star team, but he slipped to a 5-5 record in an injury-filled 2011. Girardi suggested perhaps a sense of entitlement slipped in last year and made clear that Hughes is among four pitchers competing for three open slots in the Yankees' starting rotation.
"I think you can tell by the way he came into camp that there's a little bit more of an edge," Girardi said. "He worked extremely hard this winter. He was here a couple weeks early, throwing off the mound, doing sides. That's not something we ask our players to do. We had a lot of people come in early, but he knows that there is competition, and nothing is going to be handed to you."
Only CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are assured of starting spots, with Hughes battling Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and Freddy Garcia for the remaining three berths.
"I don't think there necessarily was a message sent in my direction. I did my offseason program on my own. I called the team and made sure it was OK that I did that," Hughes said. "It wasn't something where I was being punished and sent to boot camp somewhere. It was something I wanted to do."
Hughes said he never discussed conditioning with Girardi.
"I was heavier than normal. I knew what I needed to change," he said.
Against the Pirates, Hughes followed Sabathia and allowed Clint Barmes' two-out single in the third followed by Andrew McCutchen's RBI double over center fielder Dewayne Wise.
Hughes left with one out and two on in the fourth following singles by Neil Walker and Yamaico Navarro, and a run scored on an error by first baseman Mark Teixeira.
"From a physical standpoint I felt pretty good for it being the first time out," Hughes said. "I was probably a little too anxious and overthrowing a little bit."
Knowing he may be competing with Garcia for the final starting spot, Hughes called it "a step in the right direction" that his fastball had life after not topping 90 mph during last year's exhibition season.
"I certainly feel better than last spring," he said. "I'm in a dogfight right now, so I've got to pitch well. You never want to give up runs in the spring when you're fighting for a job. I'll have a few more outings to show the staff what I can do."
A laid-back 25-year-old from Orange County in California, Hughes has faced great expectations since the Yankees took him with the 24th pick of the 2004 amateur draft. When he came up to the majors in 2007, he had a no-hit bid through 6 1-3 innings at Texas in his second start, leaving with a pulled left hamstring.
He was just 0-4 in 2008, missing most of the season with a broken rib, then was shifted to the bullpen in June 2009 and became the primary setup man for closer Mariano Rivera. Back in the rotation the following year, he seemed set for stardom.
Then he went 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA in his first three starts last year, when he had trouble reaching 90 mph with his fastball.
He was sidelined from April 15 to July 6 because of an inflamed right shoulder and missed a chance to start in the playoffs when a seven-year-old back injury recurred in mid-September. He threw 2 1-3 scoreless innings over two appearances in the five-game division series loss to Detroit.
"The one thing that we expect of our players is that you come in in tip-top shape if you've been here before," Girardi said. "Spring training used to be a time when you got in shape. Not the case anymore."
AP freelance writer Rob Biertempfel in Bradenton contributed to this report.