By Pat Borzi
MINNEAPOLIS -- Legacies matter, even to players in their twenties. Phil Hughes knows his as a Yankee, and, frankly, it stinks.
The mess of a 2013 season, where Hughes went 1-10 at Yankee Stadium while giving up a ghastly 17 home runs, will be what Yankee fans remember about him. Of that, Hughes is sure. Not the 2010 All-Star appearance. Not as the hard-throwing kid setting up for Mariano Rivera during the 2009 world championship run. Not the 18- and 16-win seasons.
No one ever said that to Hughes on the street or in a restaurant, of course, because even New Yorkers are more polite than that. But he knows. The boos still reverberate for Hughes, now a Minnesota Twin, ensconced and comfortable 1,000 miles west in the carpeted home clubhouse at Target Field.
"If you polled 100 semi, not die-hards, but people who followed the Yankees, I'm sure my reputation or whatever you want to call it is not a great one," says Hughes. "That's something that I've come to terms with. I will always remember my time there fondly, and remember the good times, and try to block out the not so good times.
"But people's memories are always whatever's freshest, and for me unfortunately, that was bad last season. That's human nature. That's life. That's how it goes. If you had asked me who won the World Series eight years ago, it would probably take me a little while to remember. That's something that I'm okay with. I let all the bad vibes, all the negativity go a little bit."
Newfound success eased that. Sunday, Hughes returns to Yankee Stadium to face the team that drafted him on one of the most effective strike-throwing stretches of his career. Tuesday night's no-decision against Texas represented the seventh consecutive quality start for Hughes (5-1, 3.15 ERA), who hasn't walked any of his last 175 batters, covering six starts.
Last winter, the Twins invested $84 million in free agents Hughes and Ricky Nolasco plus returnee Mike Pelfrey, aiming to improve the hideous starting pitching responsible for three consecutive 90-loss seasons. Nolasco has been awful (2-5, 6.12). So was Pelfrey, who started 0-3 with a 7.99 ERA before going on the disabled list with a groin strain.
But Minnesota is 8-2 in Hughes' starts, the main reason why the Twins hover near .500. Always a tinkerer, Hughes junked his slider in favor of more cutters and curveballs, then added a two-seam, sinking fastball that tails in on righties. That, and a less cozy home ballpark, made such a difference. Hughes has allowed one home run in six starts at Target Field, four overall.
"He's fixed a few things mechanically, and the ball is coming out of his hand great," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You always hope you're going to get a guy who takes off and goes on a run, and you never know what to expect when you bring somebody in. Now we're seeing a pretty good pitcher. Hopefully he can continue that. He's fun to watch."
It took time for Hughes, 27, to get over his dreadful final months as a Yankee. He beat the Twins in Minnesota on July 2, then never won again. A career-worst seven-game losing streak left him 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA. The Yankees, mindful of the 39 homers hit off him in the Bronx his final two seasons, let him walk as a free agent. The once-promising prospect left town as the subject of ridicule.
Months later, while the Rangers scored six unanswered goals against New Jersey during an NHL Winter Classic game at Yankee Stadium, New York Daily News baseball columnist John Harper tweeted, " Just saw the score from the Stadium. Is Phil Hughes pitching or something?"
Funny stuff. Hughes, the Californian, tweeted a perfect New York answer back at Harper, clever and lightly rubbed with sarcasm: "Comedian and writer. Gotta respect the talent diversity."
Said Hughes: "I realize I'm going to be the punch line to a lot of jokes for the next couple of years. But if you want to have fun on Twitter, I feel like you can have fun on the other side of it, too. If you're going to make a joke, you have to take a joke, too.
"But I've completely let it go. That's the great thing about living in California in the offseason. Escape from it, take a deep breath, hit the reset button. Gosh, I can only imagine if I was from the New York area or something like that. It would be a little harder to kind of clear out those memories. Fortunately, I'm able to get about as far away in the U.S. as possible. That's a good thing sometimes."
As a Yankee, Hughes said he always enjoyed coming to Minneapolis, which he said never seemed hot and muggy like New York. Target Field also yielded the second-fewest homers per game in the American League in 2013 (1.75), below Yankee Stadium's 2.06. So Hughes was ready to listen when the Twins called. Minnesota tracked Hughes for almost a decade, nearly drafting him out of high school in 2004, then seeking him in a potential Johan Santana deal after the 2007 season.
"We didn't talk so much about New York or the pressures in New York or anything else," said Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony. "We thought it was wearing him down a little bit because he struggled in Yankee Stadium, there's no question. We also thought Target Field would be a better park for him to pitch in as a fly ball pitcher."
This spring Minnesota pitching coach Rick Anderson helped Hughes keep his weight back and simplify his delivery, setting up a smooth, easy move toward the plate. Hughes no longer frets about leg kick or body position. In the majors, only Miami's Nathan Eovaldi has thrown a higher percentage of strikes (58.2 percent) than Hughes (a career-high 57.8). And only David Price and Jordan Zimmermann have thrown more first-pitch strikes.
"Throwing strikes, I feel like, has been a breeze since I've been able to do that," Hughes said.
Uncluttering his mind helped as well. "You can see he's probably more relaxed," said Anderson, a former Met pitcher. "In New York, if you go out and struggle as a player, you put a little more pressure on yourself. Happens two or three times, and your head's spinning. Maybe here it's not as magnified or whatever you want to say. Here, he can relax and just let his pitches work."
With the sinker, Hughes stumbled onto the grip messing around during a bullpen session, similar to how Rivera discovered his legendary cutter. Hughes never had a pitch run in on right-handers before; it prevents them from leaning over the plate and whacking everything else.
"It's a good pitch for him," said a major-league scout who has followed Hughes since his amateur days. "I don't know whether it was the Yankees or the media, but people labeled him as the next Roger Clemens. That's unfair to put on anybody. He's a solid, middle-of-the-rotation guy for a good team."
For Minnesota, Hughes has been a godsend. Far from the guy who departed the Bronx last September in disgrace.
"Obviously last year was a disaster, but there were times that I pitched pretty well in New York," Hughes said. "Sometimes that's forgotten because of, obviously, how things ended. I feel like when I'm right and things are going well, I can pitch well anywhere. But it's been a good fit here, and I'm happy with everything so far."
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Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.