FORT MYERS, FLA. – Phil Hughes is at it again.
“I feel like throughout the course of my career I’m always trying to evolve and change and make adjustments,” he said. ‘‘That’s part of the deal.”
Hughes has spent most of his career looking for another pitch to throw, something to neutralize hitters and keep his ERA down. This year, Hughes is getting to know his changeup once again. It’s a pitch he wants hitters to worry about as they game-plan for him.
Hughes has spent recent outings throwing many more changeups than usual, just to get the feel for it. That included Sunday during the Twins’ 8-6 loss to Baltimore. About 24 of Hughes’ 72 pitches were changeups. He gave up three home runs, two of which came on changeups.
His line wasn’t pretty — he gave up four runs over five innings on six hits and a walk with four strikeouts — but the genius is at work here.
Hughes didn’t throw a cut fastball when he broke into the majors in 2007 but added one in 2009. He threw a slider but ditched it after 2008, tried it again in 2012 and ’13 only to ditch it again. He stopped using the cut fastball in 2013 but used it frequently once he joined the Twins.
In 2014, he threw fewer than 10 changeups all year. He might have thrown 10 by the second inning Sunday.
“Overall I was pleased with the progress I have been making on the command, and I feel my velocity is coming back,” he said.
Hughes’ fastball was measured from 88 to 92 miles per hour Sunday, his best of the spring. He’s hoping for a couple more mph, but, according to fangraphs.com, his fastball averaged 92.1 mph in 2014 when he went 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA in his first season with the Twins. It dipped to 90.7 and 90.5 the next two seasons, with last season ending in June because of a broken left femur then surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome.
So he might end up battling with what he has. But it definitely will include more changeups, which led to some swings and misses Sunday.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen him throw as many changeups and offspeed pitches,” said bench coach Joe Vavra, who managed the split-squad team that played at Hammond Stadium. “It’s something he’s dealing with and working on.”
The results were mixed Sunday. Byron Buxton led off the first inning with a long home run to left before Baltimore’s Trey Mancini hit a 1-2 changeup from Hughes out to center to tie the score at 1-1.
ByungHo Park, Robbie Grossman and Danny Santana loaded the bases with singles in the second, then Jorge Polanco drove a 1-0 pitch from Dylan Bundy into the seats in right for a grand slam and 5-1 Twins lead.
Craig Gentry hit a two-run homer in the third — off a cut fastball — to make it 5-3. Grossman’s sacrifice fly in the third put the Twins ahead 6-3.
Hughes threw an 85-mph change up to Anthony Santander in the fifth. It was thrown too hard and stayed up in the strike zone. Santander crushed it over the seats in right, where it bounced into the pond behind the section. When he threw his changeup between 80-82 mph it stayed down and had movement. This is what spring training is for.
Baltimore scored three more in the ninth to win the game.
Hughes shrugged his shoulders as he talked about some of the hits he allowed.
“Obviously I’ve had my struggles the last couple of years and I’m not satisfied with just hoping things will get better because of surgery or something like that,” he said. “I’m actively trying to become a better pitcher all around. There’s not a better time than spring training to start working on stuff and incorporate different things and get a feel for new pitches you are trying to work on.”