NEW YORK - The present giving way to the future was planned as an off-season ceremony by the Yankees. Then and only then was The Empire supposed to ready for the likes of Roger Clemens and, who knows, Mike Mussina, to give way to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain.
Last night, The Rocket took perhaps his most serious obvious step towards Cooperstown and away from a leading active role in the Bronx when he broke down after lasting only 2 1/3 innings as a starter in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against Cleveland.
Clemens gutted it out as long as he could, testament to his Hall of Fame makeup and pedigree. But he allowed two runs before he left and cast in doubt any further assignments coming his way should the Yankees continue on in the postseason. By departing when he did, Clemens also allowed Hughes an opportunity to seize the moment.
The kid did. After allowing the one run he inherited in the third to score on a Jhonny Peralta double in the third, Hughes bowed his back completely. He wound up stranding Peralta by inducing the previously sizzling Kenny Lofton to fly out. Then followed scoreless innings in the fourth, fifth and sixth, a dazzling performance that took the frenzied home crowd the rest of the way in terms of envisioning how bright this young man's future might be.
For Hughes came on and provided the salve the Yankees desperately needed - 3 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two strikeouts and striking out four. In that span, the Yankees awoke, overcame a three-run deficit and went on to win their first game of the series, 8-4.
Not bad for a guy who's used to plying his living as a starter, and one who's got all of 72 2/3 regular-season innings in at the big-league level.
"That kid's got a live fastball, tough breaking ball, started mixing in a changeup a little bit," impressed Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "Posada did a good job with him. (And) if you talk about the difference between Roger and him, and just the way they pitch threw us off a little bit. But the kid showed a lot of poise. He did a good job."
"He looked like a seasoned pro out there," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "I can't say more than that. He was happy to give you the innings, and when you looked into his eyes, it wasn't a surprise."
"My job was really just to keep the damage to a minimum, to try to keep us where we were at," said Hughes, 5-3 in 13 games as a starter for the Yankees this season.