No stage too grand for maturing Hughes

No stage too grand for maturing Hughes

ARLINGTON -- First, Phil Hughes was the prospect who got all the buzz, and when you are coming up with the Yankees, there's a whole lot of that.

Then he was the injured prospect trying not only to get healthy, but struggling to live up to the expectations of the gaudy scouting reports and the media build-up.

There was that whole relief chapter in 2009, when Hughes -- very successfully at times -- helped form the bridge to the great Mariano Rivera.

And now? Hughes has come of age at 24 and has earned enough confidence from manager Joe Girardi to be entrusted with starting Saturday afternoon's 4 ET American League Championship Series Game 2 against the Texas Rangers. This, after an 18-8 regular season and a dominant win -- including seven shutout innings -- in an AL Division Series-clinching Game 3 against the Twins.

"The early part of my career, I wish I could forget, but that's something that I've kind of just had to deal with, coming up as a young guy with injuries -- that sort of thing," said Hughes. "Last year as a reliever was definitely a learning experience for me, and then this year, finally getting in a full season as a starter, it's nice now when I look back on my first couple years -- that obviously didn't go as well as I would have liked -- that I could come back from that and put up a couple of decent seasons."

Not bad for a guy who was just trying to win a rotation spot eight months ago under the Spring Training sun of Tampa, Fla. In all honesty, the possibility of a start in a game of this magnitude was not even on his radar back then.

"Not at all," Hughes said. "I just try to take it day-to-day. I came into Spring Training hoping to win that spot. After that, I was just looking forward to my next start, and I really didn't think about the playoffs.

"I didn't think about the second half of the season. I just took it day-to-day, did my work and looked forward to my next start. It worked out pretty well, and here we are."

Here Hughes is, ready for the biggest start of his career. Because of the progression he's at in his career, each outing the right-hander takes for the rest of this postseason will hold that same distinction.

With his lights-out performance against the Twins, Hughes showed that the moment was not too big for him.

"It was gratifying, for sure," said Hughes. "You want to go out there, especially in your first start, and prove something -- go out and have a good game. Obviously, it's going to set the tone for whatever starts I have left in this postseason, and that was certainly nice."

Now, Hughes will get ready for another challenge -- making a postseason start in enemy territory.

"It will be a good challenge, I think," Hughes said of starting at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. "I pitched well on the road this season. Ballparks don't really tend to affect me too much. I like pitching here, which is a good thing."

Yes, Hughes and Rangers Ballpark. There is a history there.

It was in that venue where Hughes had about the most bittersweet first Major League win imaginable. On May 1, 2007, with a no-hitter in progress, Hughes felt his left hamstring pop on a seventh-inning pitch to Mark Teixeira. He wouldn't throw another pitch for three months, and his career didn't completely get back on track until this season.

"I remember coming into that game, coming off my debut -- it wasn't great," Hughes said. "I still wanted to prove something, and I remember coming into that game and feeling really good. Everything was working -- I was able to throw strikes.

"It seems like a distant memory now. But obviously, it didn't end too well. That was certainly disappointing. Family and friends know not really to bring it up, just because it's not one of my best memories. But at the same time, it was my first Major League win, and that certainly is still special."

Though Hughes made just six starts in 2009, one of them was at Texas, and he fired eight shutout innings.

"It's not a ton of experience here -- just two starts," said Hughes. "But I remember from those two starts, I feel pretty comfortable here. I'm not sure what it is -- the ballpark, or what -- but yeah, the two times that I have started here, I have felt pretty good."

And when it came time for Girardi to set his rotation for this ALCS, those two starts were a factor in the more battle-tested Andy Pettitte being held back for Monday's Game 3 at Yankee Stadium.

"It's one of the factors we talked about," Girardi said. "And like I said, there are a lot of factors that come into making a rotation. We can sit and talk about all of them, but we don't have enough time in the day to do that. And having success here, a pitcher usually feels good at the parks that they have success."

In truth, Hughes has earned enough trust in Girardi and his teammates that they feel good pretty much wherever and whenever he pitches.

"I think he's developed great for us," Girardi said.

Now, that development will get another test, as Hughes sizes himself up against Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young and Vladimir Guerrero amid the pressure of the ALCS.

"You know, you have got to be real careful, especially in this ballpark," Hughes said. "They have a lot of power and they are aggressive on the basepaths, and you want to minimize that. For me, I just try to execute my game plan and attack the zone early and throw strikes."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.