SAN DIEGO – There’s no telling what the problem was with Phil Hughes on Wednesday night, whether it was a physical ailment, a strategic mistake or some flagging concentration. Maybe his dog was sick.
Whatever the cause, the effects were obvious: Three different times, Hughes ran the count to three balls on a Padres batter.
Don’t worry, none of them actually reached base, of course; Hughes hasn’t issued a walk in more than a month now. And without any extra baserunners, Hughes dominated the Padres for seven innings, winning his fifth consecutive decision, 2-0 at the Twins’ home away from home, Petco Park.
“Attacking the strike zone, staying aggressive — nothing much is different,” Hughes said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been easy, but I feel pretty good with my mechanics.”
Chris Parmelee drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, Trevor Plouffe provided a solo home run, and the Twins improved to 5-0 all-time in the Padres’ downtown home. They’ve also won eight of their past 11 games and for the first time all season and stand two games above .500 at 23-21.
Hughes is a big part of that surge, considering the Twins haven’t lost a game he’s started since April 15. The righthander allowed seven hits over seven innings, but all were singles, which is why only one San Diego baserunner reached third base.
“It’s pretty much what he’s been doing for a while. You don’t see many breaking balls, he’s just attacking the strike zone with his fastball and cutter,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He goes at them and puts them in counts where they have to swing.”
That lone sixth-inning jam may have been the most impressive test of all: Hughes surrendered singles to Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso leading off the inning. A grounder to third produced an out at second base, but the 27-year-old Californian faced Will Venable and Cameron Maybin with the tying run one base away.
No problem. Venable battled through an eight-pitch at-bat, falling behind 0-2 — Hughes threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 28 hitters he faced — but then waited out three straight pitches just off the plate. Finally forced to throw a strike, Hughes chose the off-speed, 88 mph cutter, and Venable swung through it.
“That was big,” Hughes said. “The 2-2 pitch, I thought was a strike, so I decided to reset and gather myself. [Catcher] Kurt [Suzuki] put down the backdoor cutter right away. I’d been able to get it over all night. That was a big out.”
The threat ended just one pitch later, when Maybin grounded a ball to short for the final out.
Hughes retired 10 of the final 12 hitters he faced but was lifted after seven innings for setup man Casey Fien in the eighth and closer Glen Perkins in the ninth, each of whom faced only three batters themselves. Perkins earned his 14th save of the season, which leads the American League.
It was the fifth consecutive start in which Hughes, who was acquired as a free agent from the Yankees last December, has not issued a walk. His streak of 147 consecutive at-bats without issuing a walk, dating to the pass he issued the Royals’ Alcides Escobar in the second inning on April 20, is the most by a Twin since Carlos Silva had a streak of 155 in a row in 2005.
Hughes also owns a 1.08 ERA in his past five starts, and by winning his fifth game, already owns more victories than all of last season, when he went 4-14 for New York.
He did have one complaint, though, typical of a pitcher. He talked to plate umpire Mark Wegman between innings to complain about a pitch.
A pitch during his at-bat.
“I didn’t think the pitch to me was a strike, the one he struck me out on,” Hughes said. “He told me he thought it might have been a little low.”
Probably so. Hughes knows the strike zone, after all.