Photo: Mike Ashmore (2007)
By popular demand, the first alumni feature of the off-season will be with Phil Hughes. During a recent trip to Yankee Stadium, I had a chance to catch up with the former Thunder pitcher, who was considered one of the best prospects in all of baseball when he was with the club back in 2006.
Mike Ashmore: I haven’t really had a chance to talk to you too much since you were last in Trenton in 2006. You spent most of the season with the Thunder that year, what was your experience like over there?
Phil Hughes: “I loved it. It was kind of my first experience in Northeast baseball. And it was my first full season without being cut short with innings limits and that sort of thing. I had a great time there. I really felt like it gave me a building step towards becoming an improved pitcher.”
Ashmore: Was there something that you learned in Trenton that you’ve taken with you to this level?
Hughes: “Yeah. It was my first time pitching on front of crowds, and you get not nearly the media that’s here, but you start to get the questions about when you’re going to go to the big leagues and all that sort of stuff. So you start to handle that. Just the overall experience of pitching there. It really was beneficial to me to have Dave Eiland as my pitching coach there, and now he’s here with us. That year, when I look back to ’06, I think it’s almost my best season as a professional baseball player. I really took a lot of things from there that I use to benefit me.”
Ashmore: Were there still parts of that season that were kind of frustrating for you? I remember you’d go five or six innings and allow maybe one hit or even no hits, and you’d get taken out…
Hughes: “A little bit. I just kind of had to get past that. I know sometimes I’d have no-hitters and I’d get pulled after five innings and stuff like that. But it’s part of the growing up process, I guess you could say. It’s something you deal with. A lot of young pitchers don’t have those innings yet on their arm to build on, so you kind of have to go through that.”
Ashmore: How have you changed as a pitcher since you were with the Thunder?
Hughes: “I think I’ve grown up since then emotionally and even physically, sometimes. I look back and it was only three years ago, but it seems like a while. But I think I’ve come a long way. I’ve incorporated a couple new pitches, and the command of my fastball…just the confidence with it is right where it was. My breaking ball is definitely better, I feel like. Just overall, I feel like I’ve come a long way since then.”
Ashmore: How nice is it to have finally been able to stick in the big leagues after going back and forth between here and Scranton a few times? And you have a set role now as well…
Hughes: “It’s nice. It’s kind of what your goal is, to get up here and find a role for yourself and try to find a comfort zone and know that you’re going to be here and stick. A lot of guys get some time, but it’s really about contributing and being consistent and really proving yourself up here. I didn’t do that the first couple of years, but fortunately I’ve been able to stay healthy so far and done a pretty good job here.”
Ashmore: Back when you were with the Thunder, the expectations of you were pretty crazy. You were supposed to be the next everything; you were on the cover of prospect books and it seemed everyone was talking about you. How difficult was that to deal with? Did you find yourself trying to live up to all that?
Hughes: “I tried to just be myself. Things worked out for me. I’ve had some injuries and stuff like that, which were tough. Coming back from injury, I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be. It was tough. I think people kind of wrote me off a little bit there. But whenever you go through stuff like that, I took it as a learning experience. It’s better to go through those things then and become a better pitcher going forward.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com