Long ball burdens Hughes as Yanks cooled

Long ball burdens Hughes as Yanks cooled

NEW YORK -- Phil Hughes served up three home runs, and the Yankees saw their eight-game winning streak halted in a 7-3 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday.

It was the second time this season that Hughes had surrendered a trio of long balls, and both have come against the Blue Jays -- an unsurprising fact given Toronto's stranglehold on the Major League lead in home runs. Vernon Wells, Aaron Hill and John Buck were the perpetrators on Sunday, with the first two blasting particularly frustrating two-run shots on 0-2 counts.

"Two 0-2 pitches cost him the game," manager Joe Girardi said. "He wasn't too bad. But when you make those mistakes 0-2 against a club that, when you make those mistakes they're usually home runs, it cost him the game."

"Those are the two worst pitches I made in the game," said Hughes. "This team pounces on mistakes, and that's what they did today."

Despite the setback, the Yankees still hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the Rays, who lost to the Orioles, in the American League East.

Wells' second homer in as many games against Hughes was on a fastball almost perfectly centered in the strike zone. The ball didn't land until some 400-plus feet later, between Monument Park and the visiting bullpen in left-center field.

"The fastball over the plate 0-2 is probably the worst pitch you can make," Hughes said.

Hill's homer came on an 0-2 cutter that tailed back across the plate toward the top of the strike zone, and it eluded the leaping mitt of Brett Gardner in the first few rows of the left-field seats in the third. Hughes called it "a really, really bad pitch."

Finishing hitters off in 0-2 counts has been a minor issue for Hughes all season. Usually, though, it manifests itself only in foul balls and an inflated pitch count. He had allowed only one 0-2 home run all season -- until Sunday, that is.

Part of the problem was the inconsistency of Hughes' curveball. His ability to locate it in two-strike situations earlier in the summer helped alleviate his struggles closing at-bats, but he appeared reticent to use it early on Sunday in those situations, especially after Hill smacked a hanging 0-1 curveball for a first-inning double.

"I threw some curveballs today that were good. Sometimes it takes a little while for it to get going. It's usually my last pitch I can command," Hughes said. "You'd like to throw a good one right there [to Wells], but the first time around, I didn't want to hang another one."

Buck added his own first-pitch blast on a cutter into the netting above Monument Park just to the left of center field in the sixth, extending the Blue Jays' advantage to 6-1.

Hughes has now allowed 22 home runs on the season, 19 of which have come at Yankee Stadium. He's typically been victimized to right field in his home park, but all three homers on Sunday were pulled by right-handed hitters -- matching the number that had been pulled by righties against Hughes all season.

Hughes allowed the six runs on seven hits in six innings. Although he and Girardi both said his stuff was good aside from the home runs, they were not the only mistakes he made. Six of the seven Toronto hits off Hughes went for extra bases.

It marked the third straight time Hughes was unable to toss a quality start, and his ERA has continued to steadily rise since mid-May.

"[Earlier in the year], when I got guys on base, I was able to find my way out of it," Hughes said. "It seems like I have a couple of innings where I have guys on base and I don't make that pitch when I need to."

Girardi neither accepted not rejected the idea that Hughes may be feeling some fatigue in the final month of his first full season as a starter.

"That's the $1 million question that I'm probably going to be asked for a while here," Girardi said. "I thought his velocity was better today than it has been his last couple starts, which makes me think he felt pretty good."

Hughes said he feels "great" every five days, and he looked upon the outing -- as statistically poor as it was -- as an improvement over his last few starts.

"Obviously better than the last two times," Hughes said. "I made some good pitches in the middle innings, and I tried to battle as much as I could. I just couldn't keep the team in the game."

The Yankees couldn't overcome the early hole against Brett Cecil, who joined Felix Hernandez as the only pitchers to beat New York three times this season. Cecil tossed his fourth quality start in as many tries against the Yankees in 2010, giving up three runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He improved to 8-2 against AL East foes.

"I've seen them a lot over the past couple years," Cecil said. "Once you see guys, you can learn your weakness and strengths against certain guys. As long as I make those pitches, everything should fall into place."

On the bright side for the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez had two hits and an RBI in his return to the lineup.

Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.