FORT MYERS, Fla. – Phil Hughes is clean-shaven. He’s wearing a wedding ring. He can raise his right arm without feeling numbness in his hand. And the broken bone in his left leg has healed.
Hughes is really happy that he’s past the 2016 season.
“I do feel good about things,” Hughes said. “It’s all talk until you get out there, but I feel like I’m in a good spot.”
Hughes, who got married during the offseason, is back to rejoin a rotation he was pulled out of last season, during which he went 1-7 with a 5.95 ERA. When he was last seen on a field, he was being helped off it, because a line drive off the bat of Miami’s J.T. Realmuto broke Hughes’ femur. But it was soon learned that he needed surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), during which a rib under his right shoulder blade was removed.
With Ervin Santana the only returning starter with an ERA of less than 5.00 (3.38), the Twins could use Hughes to return to his old ways.
Pitchers and catchers report to camp Tuesday.
“I’m looking for Phil to have a big turnaround year this year, I really am,” Twins pitching coach Neil Allen said. “He’s been off and on, but there was an issue with his discomfort.”
The righthander historically has been a force in even-numbered years. Before last year, Hughes was 50-31 with a 3.94 ERA in his past three even-numbered years. His past three odd years he was 20-28, 4.98. The even-year bounce never happened last season.
Hughes wasn’t right from the beginning, going 1-4 with a 4.45 ERA. Then there was the baffling game in Detroit on May 17, when he held Detroit to one run over 6 ⅓ innings but had the bullpen activated despite having thrown only 75 pitches.
Even when pitching well, he knew something was wrong. And, over the past two seasons, his velocity was down a couple miles an hour from 2014. He threw his fastball 49 percent of the time last season — down from 64.7 in 2015 — opting for more cut fastballs and curveballs because his fastball was down to 90.2 mph. His career average heater is 92.0.
Hughes admitted Monday that he had numbness and tingling in his hand going back to 2015. He said there were times his arm felt as if he had thrown 90 pitches — and it was the first inning.
“I knew there might be a bigger issue that was there,” he said. “That took quite a bit of looking around and figuring out what it was.”
Hughes was pulled out of the rotation following a June 2 meltdown against Tampa Bay. He visited a specialist for tests, including one test during which he was put to sleep as they searched for answers. Hughes tried to pitch put of the bullpen while doctors tried to pinpoint the problem, but that didn’t last long: Realmuto’s line drive found his leg on June 9. By the end of the month, doctors had diagnosed TOS.
“It went from feeling so good early on to all of that happening in such a short period of time,” Hughes said, “It was like a big blow. But that’s what you have to deal with, the law of ups and downs.”
Part of the rehabilitation was to go on a throwing program. And he’s pitched off the mound five times already, as he wanted to enter camp a little ahead of the curve.
Hughes’ 2016 was salvaged by one thing. He got married in December in Napa, Calif., with teammate Brian Dozier, former teammate Trevor Plouffe and director of team travel Mike Herman in attendance.
His wife, Sarah, isn’t even a big baseball fan. He joked that she uses crowd reaction to determine how well he’s pitching.
“There’s no doubt that was the highlight of a pretty down year, career-wise” Hughes said. “It was a good way to go into the offseason with a little positivity.
“I’m hoping 2017 is a turnaround year. I have a lot to prove. I feel like that this is a good opportunity to do that. I’m not going to be handed opportunities. I have to go out and get whatever I want. It’s up to me.”