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In short set, Hughes, CC pack quite a punch

In short set, Hughes, CC pack quite a punch

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NEW YORK -- The Red Sox have an intriguing assignment to tackle during their brief visit to Yankee Stadium this week. Not only will they have to face the Yankees' anointed ace, but they are set to see an ace-in-training as well.

Phil Hughes and CC Sabathia have the nods for New York in a two-game series set to open on Monday, and while Sabathia's $161 million contract and big-game resume have earned him trusted stature, Hughes has impressed almost everyone after winning the fifth-starter's job coming out of camp.

"I can't really tell you exactly why it's been going so well, but I'm just trying to throw strikes and attack the strike zone," Hughes said. "I know we have a good offense, so I just have to do my job and I know they'll score runs."

Hughes comes into the Boston series wielding a sparkling 5-0 record and a 1.38 ERA. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he has become the first Yankees pitcher with five wins and a sub-1.50 ERA through six starts since 1958, when "Bullet" Bob Turley went 6-0 with an 0.83 ERA on his way to a Cy Young Award.

According to Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who shrugs before admitting it is somewhat of a milquetoast response, he believes Hughes' recipe for success comes from doing it with "deception and location."

"He has four pitches now, he has late movement, he has ways to slow you down and speed you up," Girardi said. "He's able to change eye level and his velocity does not fall off."

All good things, for sure, coming from a pitcher who was dubbed "Pocket Rocket" during his first big league camp in 2007 -- a reference comparing him to a miniature Roger Clemens.

Hughes' only setbacks on the path to his projection as a top-of-the-rotation-type pitcher have been injury-related -- a string that included having to leave a no-hitter intact during his second Major League start. That all may be in the rearview mirror now.

It was Hughes' stint as a reliever last year for the World Series champs, when he went 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA in 44 appearances, that may have set everything in motion for a terrific start to 2010.

"I think last year helped me a lot, just being in the bullpen and having that aggressiveness," Hughes said. "I was kind of able to get comfortable and confident. I think that's really done a lot for me this year.

"You can't pitch around guys in the bullpen. You have to go right after them. I try to take as much of that to starting as I could. I think it's helped me a great deal, just having that confidence and aggressiveness inside the strike zone."

Sabathia may not have as much to prove at the big league level as Hughes, not as a two-time 19-game winner with a World Series ring to boot, but he comes into the Red Sox series needing to improve certain parts of his game.

The long ball, particularly in the third innings of games, has been a thorn in Sabathia's side.

It was only a minor blip on May 8 at Fenway Park, when Darnell McDonald and former Indians batterymate Victor Martinez took Sabathia deep over the Green Monster in what would finish as a 14-3 Yankees win -- but not one for Sabathia, who finished an out shy of qualifying for the victory when a downpour washed him out of the game.

Sabathia wasn't flashing any toothy grins after his previous start on Thursday at Comerica Park, when he lost his command in the third inning again. He grooved a meaty two-seam fastball to Miguel Cabrera and hung a fat breaking ball to Brennan Boesch; both homered.

"That's pretty much what it's been -- the third inning," Sabathia said. "I've just got to try to make better pitches."

This will be the Yankees' third series of 2010 against the Red Sox, so the two sides are already well-acquainted.

New York took two out of three from Boston in the season-opening series at Fenway Park in April and won another two of three earlier this month on Yawkey Way.

"They're a good baseball team, and they have a lot of veterans," Sabathia said. "It's early in the season. They have a lot of time to try to turn it around. ... [Adrian] Beltre is a good hitter; Mike Lowell can hit against lefties. They've still got the pop that they always had. They make you put the ball over the plate."

Sabathia knows just as well as anyone from 2009's experience that just because the rivalry tips one way, it doesn't necessarily last all summer.

"We lost eight straight last year," Sabathia said. "It's still early. We've got to keep that in mind and go out and keep playing the type of baseball we've been playing."

And, in a head-to-head matchup where many fans would prefer that there be the knockdown drag-out battles that New York-Boston conjures up, the meetings have taken on even more tones of professionalism and mutual respect. Imagine that.

"They're always tough," Hughes said. "You know they're going to be tough. They have some injuries, just like we do, and they haven't been playing as well as they'd like to. But they're still the Red Sox, and we know that going in. It's certainly not a team you take lightly."

All things considered, though, Hughes would agree that the one-two punch of himself and Sabathia seems to line up for a good series ahead.

"We're throwing the ball well, and obviously, we have to just try to keep us in the game," Hughes said. "I know we're going to score runs, and that's a nice thing to be able to go out there. We've been confident and our starting pitching has been good. As long as we can keep it going, I feel good going forward."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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