BRADENTON, Fla. – Any inning that begins with walking the pitcher is likely to be a bad one. For Phil Hughes, it was only the beginning.
Hughes gave up eight hits, including two home runs, and the Pirates used them, a walk to Chad Kuhl and another rough day by the Twins defense to pile up nine runs en route to a 13-4 victory. The outing leaves the Twins with only one more week, probably only one more start, to draw a conclusion about the up-and-down righthander: Can he succeed again in the starting rotation, or will he start the season in the bullpen?
Hughes has made it clear he feels healthy and capable again after two seasons ruined by thoracic outlet syndrome, and he lived up to that billing, mostly, in his first two innings. He gave up a first-inning homer to his former catcher, Francisco Cervelli, yet he was encouraged when he struck out three in the second inning, two of them on swing-and-misses. But walking Kuhl, who has drawn only two walks in 78 regular-season plate appearances, seemed to change the outing for Hughes.
Hughes' luck only got worse from there. He got Adam Frazier to loft a catchable fly ball toward the left-field corner, but LaMonte Wade lost it in the Florida sun and it fell for a double.
The runners held on a Cervelli flyout and a David Freese groundout, but Hughes made a mistake with a slider to Jose Osuna, and it wound up in center field for a two-run single.
"I had a chance to get out of it but kind of hung a slider up in the zone," Hughes said. "That one stung. You work hard to get around [the mistakes]. Walking the pitcher to lead off the inning, that wasn't something that I was very happy about."
He was even less happy in the fourth, when he surrendered a two-run homer to Jordan Luplow and gave up a couple of hits. Mitch Garver's error when trying to field Kuhl's sacrifice hurt, and so did first baseman Brock Stassi's attempt to throw out Todd Cunningham at the plate, too late. Hughes finally came out of the game when he reached the Twins' 25-pitches-in-an-inning ceiling.
"I felt like I've really turned the corner, [with my] command especially," Hughes said. "To take a step back [Saturday] is disappointing."
With all the misplays behind Hughes, though, Twins manager Paul Molitor wasn't drawing any judgments about the day. Hughes is tentatively scheduled to start against the Yankees on Thursday. Tyler Duffey, Hughes' main competition for the fifth spot, will start Monday in this same ballpark.