By James Ward
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On Sunday afternoon, the Yankees beat the Tigers 5-1 and Phil Hughes pitched the best game of his major league career.  He dominated a good Detroit lineup, including two strikeouts of Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in baseball.  Sunday was Hughes’ first career, nine inning complete game – he pitched a ‘complete game’ in a 2011 game shortened to six innings due to rain – and he looked every bit the ace we were promised, but have only seen glimpses of in his six inconsistent seasons.

Hughes excelled out of the bullpen in 2009 but his success as a starter is limited to the first half of 2010, when he made the All Star team.  If the Yankees want to contend this year, they desperately need someone to anchor the starting rotation behind CC Sabathia.  With his effort on Sunday, Hughes gave us hope that he can be the guy.

In Hughes’ first major league spring training, Jason Giambi said that the then 19-year old reminded him of Roger Clemens but at this point in his career – seven years later – he has yet to show the consistency of a front line starter.

The Yankees have been extremely patient and careful with Hughes. Not only was Sunday Hughes’ first complete game, it was also the first time he went over 120 pitches.  Since he was touted the best prospect in the Yankees farm system by Baseball America in 2006, the Yankees have treated Hughes with kid gloves. His innings and pitch counts have been limited as recently as 2010, but Sunday’s start showed that the gloves were off.

No statistic shows the patience the Yankees have shown with Hughes more than this:  with 41 career wins, Hughes already has more wins for the Yankees than any other pitcher they’ve drafted in the first round.  This shows that they have still believe he has the ability to be a high-end starter because they haven’t traded him for a more experienced pitcher in a trade deadline deal.

In order for Hughes to take his game to the next level consistently, he needs to be more efficient with his pitches.  Often times, Hughes is over 100 pitches through five innings causing manager Joe Girardi to go to the bullpen early in games.  Sunday, he made sure the bullpen got a day off.

Out of the remaining starters behind Sabathia, Hughes has the most upside.  Hiroki Kuroda is a solid major league pitcher, but no higher than a third starter in a good team’s rotation.  Andy Pettitte has been great so far this season, but he is pitching on borrowed time.  He’s already given the Yankees more than they could’ve ever expected.  Ivan Nova showed the Yankees a lot last year, but he has never projected to be more than a mid to back-end of the rotation guy.

Hughes has the stuff to pitch at the front of the Yankees rotation.  He’s shown it in spurts and although it seems like Hughes has been in the majors for a long time, he’s still only 25-years old.  We’ve shown a lot of patience with him so far so let’s see how he pitches with the reigns off.  Let’s see him get out of his own jams and go deeper in games.  Let’s see him put hitters away with two strikes.  There are a lot of pitches left in his arm.  So Phil Hughes, show us what you got.

What are you expectations for Hughes? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…

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