On its face, this doesn't seem as if it's a problem at all, and that Hughes' 88 strikes on Saturday night -- the most thrown by a Yankees starter since Randy Johnson in July 2006 -- would be a good thing. Hughes' impressive strike total, however, belies the manner in which it was inflated -- by his inability to put away hitters with two strikes and two outs.
Twenty-one times on Saturday, the Mets extended at-bats with two-strike foul balls. Four times they delivered two-strike hits, and four times they came through with two-out runs against the Yankees' right-hander, enough to hand the Bombers a 5-3 loss at Citi Field.
"I want to be aggressive and throw strikes and not be afraid to miss," Hughes said. "But when I'm consistently missing inside the strike zone, they're going to make you pay. Now and then, it's fine, but to be constantly throwing the ball all over the place is a sign that you're just not that good that day."
The pattern for Hughes' evening was established early. It may have been set up Monday in his previous start against the Red Sox, in which long at-bats helped Boston score their final four runs off Hughes on a pair of two-out home runs.
In the first inning on Saturday, Hughes retired the first two Mets he faced before allowing a Jason Bay double down the line and losing Ike Davis on a seven-pitch walk. He got ahead of David Wright 1-2, but Wright delivered a single to center to open the game's scoring. Angel Pagan followed with a bloop single down the left-field line for a 2-0 lead.
That inning was almost repeated in the third, when Bay's two-out single was followed by a Davis walk and another two-out RBI single up the middle from Wright.
"Those two bad innings were mirror images of each other," Hughes said. "I get off to a good start in the inning and then can't seem to close it out. It's definitely frustrating."
Hughes settled in a bit in the middle innings -- he struck out Davis and Wright with runners on in the fifth -- before his defense let him down in the sixth. On the ninth pitch of his leadoff at-bat, Pagan lifted a fly ball down the left-field line that Randy Winn misplayed and turned into a double. Hughes retired the next two hitters and got ahead of pinch-hitter Alex Cora 0-2, but Cora fouled off a pair of tough pitches before grounding a single into right field to score the run.
"I've got to find a way to battle out of it. I was almost able to do it, and then a tough at-bat there at the end," Hughes said. "I tried to battle as much as I can, try to get through it, but tonight I just didn't have it."
Hughes' problems finishing off hitters could have far-reaching effects if they continue. He has always been a strikeout pitcher; he struck out 10 batters per nine innings during his Minor-League career and 8.3 during his first three seasons in the Majors. When he struggles to finish off hitters, however, it elevates his pitch count and leaves him more vulnerable to the whims of his defense. On Saturday, he threw a career-high 117 pitches without finishing the sixth, and a defensive misplay cost him a run.
Furthermore, opposing hitters had just a .227 batting average on balls in play against Hughes entering Saturday -- well below the league average of .295 -- a sign that Hughes has perhaps been the beneficiary of some luck. The Mets, however, were 8-for-17 when they put the ball in play off Hughes.
"I don't think there's any mental thing behind it or anything like that," Hughes said. "I just haven't executed pitches when I've needed to."
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.