Phil Hughes summed it all up succinctly. He surrendered a rare two-run lead Thursday against Masahiro Tanaka, the major leagues’ biggest winner. He gave a home run — two, actually — for the first time in a month. And he absorbed a seven-run drubbing, the most runs he’s allowed as a Twin.
Hughes nodded grimly as he considered the evidence. The Twins’ 7-4 loss to the Yankees, Hughes finally had to admit, was “a step in the right direction.”
“I felt good early. I felt like my stuff and my command was miles ahead of my last two starts,” the righthander said after his former team handed the Twins their eighth loss in 10 games. “I can take that away from it.”
He makes a good case, actually. Hughes faced the minimum 12 hitters through four innings, threw 10 first-pitch strikes, and appeared to have found the form that carried him to six straight wins earlier this year, the command that helped him post a 1.62 ERA in May. In the fifth, with the Twins holding a 2-0 lead, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann led off with singles, but Hughes wasn’t concerned as he faced Carlos Beltran. Maybe he should have been.
“I figured I’d try to get a ground-ball double play right there, and throw a two-seamer down and away. It just caught too much of the plate,” Hughes said. It was, he shrugged, “the one mistake of the game.”
Certainly the biggest, most monumental one, because it landed more than 400 feet away in the deepest part of the ballpark. Suddenly, Minnesota’s lead was a one-run deficit, and Hughes’ streak of 32⅔ innings without allowing a home run was history. Two batters later, rookie third baseman Zelous Wheeler, called up earlier in the day to make his major league debut, smashed a Hughes fastball into the Yankees’ bullpen, his first career hit. “Not knowing much about him, I’m going to challenge him,” Hughes explained.
In the seventh, Hughes struck out Beltran and got ahead of Ichiro Suzuki 1-2 but missed with three straight backdoor cutters for a walk. Wheeler then blooped an inside pitch for a hit, and Ryan hit a double-play grounder — except it hugged the third-base line for a double.
Hughes was removed, two more runs scored after he left, and suddenly a game in which he felt in control all night had morphed into a stat-sheet nightmare. Cruel game.
“All of a sudden, it’s seven runs and that’s the way it goes,” Hughes said, who has allowed 17 runs in his past three starts, an 8.05 ERA. “Stuff-wise, I feel pretty good. It’s a matter of making [fewer] mistakes.”
The biggest one, he admitted, is timing — giving up a homer to Beltran is no sin, but doing it with two runners on “completely turns the game around.” (Beltran’s home run, incidentally, gave him 367 for his career, moving him past Lance Berkman and into fourth place on the career list among switch-hitters. Only Mickey Mantle (536), Eddie Murray (504) and Chipper Jones (468) have more.)
Tanaka, even the less-than-sharp version who showed up Thursday, was a master of avoiding that mistake. The Japanese righthander gave up four runs and nine hits, both season highs, but never gave up more than one run in an inning, holding the Twins to 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
“He’s got great stuff, a lot of pitches. That splitter is unbelievable, it goes a lot of different ways. His fastball is underrated,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Tanaka, who at 12-3 became the major leagues’ first 12-game winner. “He’s tough, and he knows what he’s doing out there.”