Friday, July 24, 2009

Hughes emerges as newest Yankees star

Unless your name is Brian Bruney, it's a great time to be a New York Yankee.

Baseball's hottest team, the Yankees have won seven straight games since the All-Star break, rendering the bitter sweep by the Angels a distant memory. The streak has done beautiful things; the ice-cold Red Sox have lost 5.5 games in the standings to fall out of first while the Rays are suddenly 6.5 games off the pace. The amount of legwork New York has managed to do in one week has been stunning.

Perhaps even more impressive than the streak itself is how the Yankees have done it.

Thursday's rain-soaked win over the A's represented the largest margin of victory during the streak. Since last Friday, New York has wins of 5-3, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 6-4, 6-4 and 6-3. That's not supposed to happen. Not even the Dillon Panthers win every close game.

What this tells us is that the pitching has been remarkably good. The numbers bear that out over the seven games–the Yanks have six quality starts (six or more innings, three or less runs) and an overall team ERA of 2.29.

But while the starters have certainly excelled, it's New York's bullpen that has taken the team to another level.

Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera have been magnificent. Since June 23–the start of the series in Atlanta that turned around the Yankee season– the pair have combined to toss 28 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball. They have struck out 28 and walked four in that stretch. This utter dominance, and make no mistake, that's exactly what this is, has the Yankees playing six-inning games. Just like the old days.

It's a dynamic duo every bit the equal of Mo-Wetteland in '96 or Joba-Mo in '07. That Rivera is prominently involved in all three partnerships speaks volumes of the G.o.A.T.

Hughes, meanwhile, has been a revelation. The 23-year-old has been tabbed as a future Yankees star for five years, and now it's happening before our very eyes, albeit in a completely different way than anyone could have imagined.

Watching his poise and concentration on the mound last night as he picked up a spotless first career save, it reminded me of a similar situation earlier this season. It was May 18, Mo needed the night off and the Yankees took a two-run lead into the ninth inning against the Twins. Phil Coke got the call in Mo's place and just barely made it out alive, collecting his first save despite two walks and a run.

The left-hander admitted afterward that the difference between pitching in the eighth and ninth was palpable.

“It just seemed like everything was way more amplified,” said the man they call Cokie.

You saw none of those nerves with Hughes. And while the A's of 2009 and 1989 will never be confused, it was another sign that the right-hander is the real deal. After having every aspect of his sometimes frustrating development put under the microscope, Hughes has turned into the type of pitcher that helps win championships.

The homegrown boy has made good and the Yankees are reaping the benefits. Still think Cash was an idiot for holding onto him?

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