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New York Yankees: Phil Hughes Moves Front and Center in Yankees' Hopes

Paul Francis Sullivan@@sullybaseballChief Writer IJune 27, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 20:  Phil Hughes #65 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Atlanta Braves during their game on June 20, 2012 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

On May 21 of this season, the Yankees looked like a disaster.

They had fallen to a .500 record (21-21) and looked like an old and poorly constructed team. Mariano Rivera was out for the year. The rotation was in shambles. They were tied with the Red Sox for last place in the American League East.

Then, something switched on for the team. They won 25 of their next 32 games and skyrocketed into first place. After today's sweep of the Indians, the Yankees have the second best record in all of baseball. They won 13 of 18 interleague games and looked like the big bad Yankees again.

And then today happened.

Today Andy Pettitte broke his 40-year-old ankle and will miss the next six weeks at least. Sabathia will be put on the disabled list with groin issues. He will supposedly be back in a few weeks. It is amazing to think that a 300 pound man has not had even more groin issues.

With inconsistent performances by many of their starters, the Yankees have relied on a good bullpen and the veteran leadership of Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia.

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In fact, the Yankees' pitchers on the disabled list look like an All Star Team. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain would make a nice foundation for a playoff pitching staff if healthy.

So now the young members of the rotation are going to be asked to carry a heavy load. Ivan Nova has fluctuated between terrific and average all year. He can throw eight innings of one run ball one night and let up five runs the next.

Hiroki Kuroda has been the solid innings-eater for the Yankees that he was for the Dodgers. Although not spectacular, he keeps the team in the game and will win his share.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 20:  Phil Hughes #65 of the New York Yankees sits in the dugout after being removed from the game in the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves during their game on June 20, 2012 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City
Al Bello/Getty Images

But the real pressure will fall on the shoulders of Phil Hughes. His All Star campaign of 2010 seems like it was a long time ago. If he wants to show that year was no fluke and that he can contribute as a front line starter, now is the time.

Since he was a first round pick in 2004, Hughes has been touted as the next potential ace of the Yankees. And, with the exception of a terrific first half in 2010, he has seemed more useful in the bullpen. He has nearly his entire career being either hurt or agonizingly inconsistent.

After two months this year, he looked like someone who should have been designated for assignment. His ERA was over 7.00 heading into May and was at 5.64 as recently as a month ago.

But with Pettitte and Sabathia pitching well out of the top two spots, Hughes settled down for an excellent June, going 4-1 with a complete game and a 2.67 ERA. And that includes a six run shelling in less than five innings by the Braves on June 20th.

It is no coincidence that the Yankees' turn around in the standings happened when Hughes began pitching well. Having Sabathia and Pettitte at the top and Hughes, Nova and Kuroda at the back of the rotation was the key.

Now the back end will become the front end of the rotation. Pitchers who were supposed to compliment are now going to be asked to lead.

This situation need not be dire. When Mariano Rivera went down for the season and David Robertson went on the disabled list, the bullpen was supposed to be a disaster waiting to happen. Instead Rafael Soriano has led a bullpen which has become a strength for the Yankees.

Now with Robertson back, the team can rely on a pen that has included an effective Clay Rapada, Boone Logan and Cody Eppley.

Now it is the starting pitcher's turn to show that they can lead. Hughes already has a World Series ring, an All Star berth and millions of dollars in the bank. But his real test for achieving in the major leagues starts now.

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