BOSTON – It wasn't so long ago the New York Yankees safely stashed Phil Hughes into the farthest reaches of the starting rotation -- all the way back in the No. 5 spot, where he could win (or lose) in near-invisibility.
Hughes had the arm to die for, but the Yankees weren't about to push the 23-year-old. They persuaded Andy Pettitte to play another year and traded for Javy Vazquez, all so Hughes wouldn't risk over-exposure and over-use.
The heavy lifting would fall on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Pettitte, the latter-day Whitey Ford and Vazquez, whom the Yankees hoped would be a born-again American League star, would form the second layer of protection for Hughes.
The plan was perfect, but only in theory. Today, the rotation has been re-arranged by an injury to Pettitte's elbow and Vazquez's inability to re-create the fastball-slider combination that made him a 15-game winner in Atlanta last year.
Suddenly, Hughes has emerged from the cocoon to become the Yankees' No. 3 starter, taking the mound against the Red Sox on Friday. Although the weekend series at Fenway is missing the scent of October -- the Sox are six games out and needed to sweep the Angels just to get back over .500 -- it's significant in that it'll feature the Bombers' new Big Three:
Hughes on Friday, Sabathia on FOX Saturday afternoon and Burnett on Sunday night.
The Yankees realize they can't win another championship with this trio alone, but if ever there was a time to learn about Hughes, it's now.
He's currently 3-0, not just beating opponents, but demoralizing them. The right-hander has allowed just 10 hits in 25 innings while striking out 24. The run of success will be put to an extreme test -- Hughes has never beaten the Red Sox and is particularly vulnerable at Fenway, where he has a career 10.29 ERA.
That's what makes the weekend so compelling for the Yankees. It's not a showdown with the Sox, per se. It's not that first place is on the line (the Sox are still six out). There are no simmering feuds ready to explode. Instead, the series becomes a microcosm of the Yankees' transition to a new nucleus.
Five years ago, this team belonged to Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada -- the Core Four as they've been knighted. But slowly, inexorably, they're being replaced by Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.
That evolution was never more obvious than in the days that followed the Core's appearance on a Sports Illustrated cover. Three of the four suffered injuries within days of each other: Posada went down with a sore calf, Rivera experienced stiffness on his left side, and Pettitte had to leave Wednesday's game against the Orioles after just 77 pitches, complaining of elbow problems for the second time in two starts.
The subsequent MRI revealed the expected trauma of any pitcher closing in on 3,000 innings. Pettitte, who's a month away from his 38th birthday, admitted he was concerned.
"Anytime you're talking about the area around the elbow, you start to worry a little bit," he said in a statement released by the club Wednesday.
It's possible, even likely, Pettitte will miss his next start, which has Yankee officials wondering about the lefthander's dependability come October. They've already been staggered by their miscalculation with Vazquez, who was supposed to return to New York as a complete and more confident pitcher.
He hasn't even been close, evidenced by Joe Girardi's decision to start Hughes tonight in what should've been Vazquez's place in the rotation. One member of the organization said, "We never thought in our wildest dreams Javy would struggle like this."
Now it's Vazquez, not Hughes, who's on the lam at the back of the rotation -- and that presumes he'll start winning again. In the meantime, this is the chance Hughes has been waiting for, the one the Yankees projected all along.
Their timetable might not have been this hasty, but Hughes accelerated his development last summer when he learned a cut-fastball from Mariano Rivera, the patent owner. The great closer taught Hughes how to slide his thumb under the ball slightly to the right, creating just enough of an imbalance upon its release to result in a subtle, late break.
"If you trust it and throw it right, it moves just enough," Hughes said. The results have been devastating. According to Fangraphs.com, hitters swing at nearly a third of Hughes' pitches out of the strike zone, which is another way of saying they're getting fooled by the cutter.
What fuels his arsenal is old-school velocity -- the fastball sits at 93-94 mph. That makes Hughes one of the game's hardest throwers in a year when gun-readings are down across the board. One theory suggests the drop-off is due to the strict ban on stimulants this year; without chemicals, pitchers are working without the artificial adrenaline rush.
The ones who can still light up the radar gun are the one who were blessed with natural heat and didn't need the boost. Hughes is among the blessed, and he's used that weapon with great success. That's why Hughes is hardly intimidated walking back into Fenway.
Without bravado, he says, "I'm looking forward to it."
One scout noted the young Yankee's confidence, noting, "You're talking about a different Hughes this year."
Different, as in new pitch, new role, new job description: Big Three council member. Not a bad job description. It might even stick.