Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hughes Hungry Again

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hughes Hungry Again

Article excerpt

TAMPA, Fla. - The drive from Tustin to Los Angeles normally took 25 minutes out of Phil Hughes' morning, a trifling by Southern California commuting standards, but enough time to brace for the torture that awaited him. Four hours at a clip, five days a week, three months without a break, Hughes was a prisoner of the trainers at Athletes Performance Institute.

The mission? To re-sculpt the Yankee right-hander who'd begun to resemble the Michelin Man last year. It was bad enough losing that precious 94-mph fastball, but after spending three months on the disabled list, Hughes found himself less and less motivated to exercise. Eating well replaced pitching well, until one day he realized "my genes" had ballooned him to 250 pounds.

That's why Hughes turned the winter into a personal boot camp. Starting in November, he began working out at a 7,400-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that features a track-and-field setup, indoor basketball courts, 18 tennis courts, six locker rooms and, of course, an assembly line of weight and cardio equipment -- all designed to help Hughes reclaim the blessings that made him an 18- game winner in 2010.

One look at Hughes today tells you the program was a success, at least aesthetically: He's stronger and, if not greyhound-lean like Mariano Rivera, he registers a more manageable 240 pounds on the scale. "I definitely feel better," Hughes said Tuesday. "I can already feel a difference."

Yankee officials agree that Hughes' makeover is one of the camp's pleasant surprises. They also point out no one forced him into an intensive workout program - Hughes did so on his own. If nothing else, the right-hander's can-do attitude made A.J. Burnett expendable. The Yankees didn't just gamble on Hughes' youth, but on his maturity and self-awareness, two of the most important assets in the battle for the No. 5 rotation spot.

If talent is the only metric, the No. 5 spot is probably Hughes' to lose, although Freddy Garcia has a long history of beating the odds. Going into his age-35 season, Garcia has outperformed scores of younger pitchers who, like Hughes, throw harder and are more capable of generating swings and misses. But Garcia is fearless in a way that Hughes never has had to be. And therein lies the real question of the spring: Can Hughes match his new body with an assassin's mind-set?

If he can, the Yankees could end up with the best rotation in the AL East. But if not, Hughes becomes just another asterisk that'll dangle over Joe Girardi's head from here until opening day.

Can Michael Pineda master the change-up that has thus far eluded him? Can Hiroki Kuroda cope in the AL East? Hughes at least has familiarity working on his side. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild says, "We know what Phil is capable of," which means he's got a head start.

But Hughes also has an unsolved mystery lingering on his resume. …

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