Phil Hughes is showing his age, or lack thereof.
The 23-year-old right-hander, who excelled in the bullpen throughout the regular season, has been shaky thus far in the postseason.
Entering to protect a 6-5 lead with two out in the bottom of the seventh and the tying run on third, Hughes promptly walked Torii Hunter. Next, against the fabled Vladamir Guerrero, Hughes missed his location on what was intended to be a high fastball and surrendered an RBI single up the middle which knotted the game at six.
When the neophyte’s work was done, the Angels held a 7-6 advantage and a date for Game Six within their grasp.
If Hughes navigated his way through the seventh with the lead intact, there’s no doubt New York would be headed for Game One, not Game Six.
With only six outs necessary to eliminate the Angels, it would not have been outlandish to ask the great Mariano Rivera to pitch the final two innings. At the very least, Rivera would have been available at the first sign of trouble in the eighth.
Regardless, Hughes didn’t get it done and Joba Chamberlain wasn’t much better in the eighth.
After a leadoff double, Chamberlain struck out the hot hitting Jeff Mathis. Once Erik Aybar reached on an infield single, Joe Girardi had seen enough and called on Rivera in an unconventional situation to bail out Chamberlain and keep the game close.
Of course, Rivera exited the eighth unscathed and left the Yanks with a chance to rally. Rivera continues to spoil the Yankees with an unfathomable 14 years of dominance and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.
Mere mortals don’t ascend to greatness as quickly and the Yankees are living that unfortunate circumstance at the worst time.
Without Hughes (0-1, 5.79 ERA, 2.36 WHIP) and Chamberlain (0-0, 3.38 ERA, 2.63 WHIP) providing more than a rickety bridge to Rivera, it’s hard to see the Yankees raising a 27th championship banner in the Bronx.
The bullpen was a tremendous strength in the regular season, but except for Rivera and David Robertson, it’s looked far from impenetrable lately.
Although Robertson has been effective, this is no time to deviate from what’s been a successful formula all year. Keep him in his current role.
Hughes, quite simply, needs to pitch better.
Chamberlain, though, may be done in 2009. He’s unsure of himself after a lost season as a starter and his performance through the rest of the playoffs is about as unpredictable as LeBron James’ 2010 intentions.
Steady the wobbly bridge and there should be a parade down the Canyon of Heroes in the near future.