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It seems as if we've finally found out what's needed to light a fire under Phil Hughes.
An awful start to the 2011 season and a trip to the disabled list weren't enough to force changes for the guy the Yankees counted on to provide support for CC Sabathia. Neither were some shaky starts since coming off the disabled list as Hughes kept making the same mistakes over and over again while showing very little that made you think he could be a factor for the team down the stretch.
Threaten the man's livelihood, however, and you see some results. With Hughes locked in a battle with Ivan Nova for the final spot in the Yankees rotation and the team forced to go to a six-man rotation to settle things, Hughes decided to show up with his best stuff.
Hughes shut out the White Sox for six innings in a rain-shortened 6-0 Yankees win, his first career "complete game" shutout and his best start of 2011 by leaps and bounds. Hughes didn't walk a batter, allowed just three hits and threw harder than he's thrown all season to emphatically state his case for a spot in the rotation going forward.
The velocity has been the thing everyone's watched all season with Hughes and they were rewarded for their vigilence on Tuesday night. He started the game hitting 95 on his fastball, which meant he tailed off in the later innings to 91 and 92 instead of dropping to the high 80's as he has on other occasions this season.
At least as significant on Tuesday was the way Hughes hit spots that weren't right over the middle of the plate because his command, while less publicized, has been a bigger reason for his lack of success thus far in 2011. Hughes had everything working with his fastball, allowing him to throw it more often and drive him to a very successful outing.
Not everything was perfect. Hughes still isn't generating enough swinging strikes, although he got more of them Tuesday than he has on average this season, and you have to wonder what an offense better than the White Sox might have done to him.
Still, it is far better for Hughes to work off a mostly successful outing as he prepares for his next start than it is for him to rack his brain to figure out how to fix what's going wrong. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success -- it is one of those chicken/egg deals -- so Hughes should be in a good place right now.
He should also be in the rotation regardless of what Nova does later this week. There's no point in making a big decision at this point because the Yankees have a comfortable lead in the playoff race and keeping a six-man rotation, if they choose, will hardly work against a team trying to make sure Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia don't expire before October.
It isn't ideal, but it can work so long as CC Sabathia stays on regular rest while everyone else adapts to the new schedule. If we get another start like Tuesday's from Hughes, however, consider it time to revisit the whole arrangement.