NEW YORK -- Phil Hughes went into his first career playoff start believing it was his biggest assignment of the year, and the young right-hander rose to the occasion, helping the Yankees polish off a three-game sweep of the Twins in the American League Division Series.
The series win marks the first time that the Yankees have advanced past the ALDS as a Wild Card entrant, and New York's win was its ninth in a row in the postseason against Minnesota, the longest active stretch of dominance between any two clubs and the third longest in playoff history.
Hughes pitched seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball as the Yankees defeated the Twins, 6-1, in Game 3 on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, popping the corks as they advanced past the first round for the second successive season.
"Once I got through that first hitter, I was able to just relax and treat it like any other game," Hughes said. "I felt that was a key for me tonight. If we lose tonight, anything could happen. We wanted to close it out here in this game, and I'm just happy we were able to do that."
Dousing each other in Moet Chandon bubbly during a clubhouse celebration more reserved than some in recent memory, New York must now await the winner of the remaining ALDS series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers, hitting the road to open the AL Championship Series on Friday. The Rangers lead their series, 2-1.
"It feels good, but we've still got a long way to go," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. "We'll definitely enjoy this for a couple days at least, and then we'll get ready for the next round."
Enjoying his first full season as a starter -- a campaign that was marked by his first career All-Star appearance -- Hughes added a few new highlights to remember on a clear, cool evening, with a sellout crowd of 50,840 watching the first postseason game in the Bronx since last November's World Series clincher.
With the green bottles already on ice, Hughes was up to the task, relying mostly on his strong fastball and using his curveball, cutter and changeup for punctuation in a dominant effort. The 24-year-old retired the first nine batters he saw and faced the minimum into the fifth.
"His fastball was overpowering," catcher Jorge Posada said. "He didn't waste any time -- he came out and attacked. When we needed to use the curveball, we used it, but he was mainly fastball today. He was using both sides of the plate real well."
Minnesota challenged Hughes in the fifth inning, getting two men aboard with one out, but the right-hander came back to whiff Michael Cuddyer and get Danny Valencia to pop out. The Twins also got a pair of two-out hits in the sixth, but Hughes fanned cleanup hitter Jason Kubel to end the inning.
"I haven't put out a start like that in a long time," said Hughes, who finished the regular season 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA. "I've had times where I've felt like that during the course of a start, but I'm never able to completely finish it off and get those key outs with guys in scoring position. It's very gratifying."
Pitching coach Dave Eiland may have been applauding the loudest in the Yankees' dugout. Eiland's relationship with Hughes dates back to 2007, when Hughes was still being taught the basics at Double-A Trenton, and starts like Saturday's reinforce that every bullpen session has been time well spent.
"I've seen him grow up before my eyes -- I've had him since he was 19 years old," Eiland said. "I've been with him since teaching him how to throw a curveball to holding runners on base. I'm very proud of him -- that was the first thing I told him. He's well on his way to being what we all thought he was going to be."
Hughes recorded his final out on a flyout to end the seventh, walking off to a standing ovation as he exchanged fist bumps with Jeter. Hughes walked one and struck out six in the 99-pitch performance, his 12th career postseason appearance.
"He seemed like he had extra velocity," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I thought he changed eye level, speeds, different sides of the plate. I thought he did a tremendous job against a very good hitting lineup. There are a lot of guys in that lineup that can take you out of the ballpark. He was outstanding."
Right back at it
The Yankees became the seventh franchise since the 1969 expansion to win a World Series and then open the next postseason with a series sweep. With the exception of the 1990 A's, all were three-game sweeps.
In ousting the Twins, the Yankees tried a new avenue by getting on the scoreboard first.
New York had not scored first against Minnesota in a playoff game since Game 1 of the 2004 ALDS, an eight-game streak, but changing the sequence of runs on the board had no effect on the eventual outcome.
The Yankees cracked through against left-hander Brian Duensing in the second inning, as Robinson Cano tripled and scored on Posada's one-out single -- Posada's 41st career postseason RBI, moving him past Mickey Mantle for ninth place on baseball's all-time list.
"Isn't that crazy? We got a lot more chances," Posada said. "We got a lot more at-bats and stuff like that, but it was good to see that up there."
New York added a run in the third inning, as Nick Swisher doubled to left-center and came home on Mark Teixeira's bullet one-hop single off the left-field wall, making it a 2-0 game.
After a Cano infield single started the fourth, Marcus Thames belted a two-run homer to right field -- his first of the playoffs after he slugged 12 during a regular season in which he punished left-handed pitching, despite barely making the team out of Spring Training.
"I started my career here," Thames said. "I know they expect you to produce, and I was able to do that for them. Hopefully we can keep rolling."
The Yankees' nine-game winning streak against the Twins in the postseason is the longest active stretch.
Duensing also allowed a Brett Gardner sacrifice fly, completing 3 1/3 innings and exiting charged with five runs on seven hits.
"You're playing against a very good baseball team over there with a lot of really, really good baseball players that got it done tonight," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "They got it early on Duensing -- every time he got a ball up, they hit it."
Swisher added a solo home run in the seventh inning off Scott Baker before Kerry Wood relieved Hughes in the eighth but encountered a rare bout of ineffectiveness, allowing a run.
Boone Logan bailed Wood out by retiring Kubel on one pitch, and Dave Robertson followed by retiring Delmon Young to end the threat, all but ensuring the Yankees would be dousing the walls of their glitzy oval clubhouse in short order.
"Guys are having fun -- we enjoy this," Jeter said. "It's not easy to get through any round, let alone a five-game series. That can be the toughest one, because you don't have any room for mistakes."
After staggering to the finish line with their first losing September since 2000 and missing an opportunity to win back the AL East in losing two of three games at Fenway Park to close the season, the Yankees once again showed the ability to flip the switch when the games count most, forcing those who doubt them to think twice.
"This is pretty much the same team we had last year," Teixeira said. "We have a few different guys here and there, but we've welcomed them with open arms and hopefully they're going to have the same ride we had last year."
The Yankees have swept three other ALDS (1998, '99 and 2009) and gone on to win the World Series each time. With two off-days ahead before a Tuesday workout, the Yankees should have plenty of time to savor their October dreams.
"We're playing well at the right time, in this series," Jeter said. "It doesn't make a difference what you do. It all starts over. You've got to be clicking on all cylinders."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.