Contrary to what you’ve read, this was not Phil Hughes first playoff start. Well, sort of.
It was his first big league playoff start, but his first professional postseason start came in a Trenton Thunder uniform on September 6, 2006 at Waterfront Park.
It was Game 1 of the Eastern League Northern Division Championship Series, and Hughes, just 20 years old at the time, was given the ball and trusted to face a Portland Sea Dogs lineup that featured such future big leaguers as Jacoby Ellsbury and Brandon Moss.
All he did that night was strike out 13 batters in six innings, allowing just one run on a walk and five hits. However, the Thunder’s offense — which featured Brett Gardner, Randy Ruiz, Shelley Duncan, Justin Christian, Omir Santos and…oh yeah, Hideki Matsui — only produced one run through the first six innings, and Hughes didn’t factor in the decision.
Fast forward four years — and two more brilliant postseason starts for Triple-A Scranton in 2008 — and Hughes was again given the ball and trusted to pitch a possible series-clinching game of the ALDS; Game 3 against the Minnesota Twins.
All he did last night? How about spin seven shutout innings, allowing just one walk and four hits while striking out six.
In fact, the only damage he took last night was in the clubhouse, where he was the most frequent “victim” of champagne showers, the last of which came from, of course, A.J. Burnett.
Safe to say those minor league playoff experiences don’t really compare to this, right Phil?
“No, it really doesn’t,” said Hughes through a laugh.
“These are the spots you want to be in when you’re coming up here and be able to close out a series, especially at home with it being the first postseason game back here. It’s a really great feeling.”
Hughes’ teammates were genuinely happy for him, as many offered their congratulations in the somewhat subdued post-game celebration in the clubhouse. Among them was CC Sabathia. While Hughes has plenty of big league postseason experience under his belt, this was his first October start at the big league level. Sabathia’s Game 1 effort was his 11th playoff start in the big leagues, but he says he didn’t need to give Hughes any advice before the game.
“If you know him, you know he doesn’t need any advice on what to expect, he’s pretty good out there,” Sabathia told me.
Francisco Cervelli, in a Thunder uniform as recently as last year, was blown away by the California native’s outing.
“Wow, he looked like he was a veteran out there,” he said.
“It’s unbelievable what he did. Jorge, he called a good game, too. What a great job by everybody.”
According to Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, Hughes’ early dominance — he didn’t allow a baserunner until the fourth inning — got him more into the game.
“You realize that you’re probably going to get a chance to bat sooner rather than later,” he told me.
“Even though we had a couple times where we were out there on defense a little longer, he was very composed and we were confident that he was going to be able to battle himself out of it and give us a shot. That’s the thing as an offense, you just want to go ahead and have a shot in the ballgame, and Phil was able to give us that tonight.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com