MINNEAPOLIS -- Phil Hughes didn't know he would be starting a game in the playoffs -- let alone a series-clinching game.
"I didn't necessarily know it was coming," Hughes said of the Yankees' decision to use him for Saturday's American League Division Series Game 3 against the Twins. "We have a lot of options we could have gone to. I'm just happy to be given the opportunity and hopefully make the most of it."
In reality, the Yankees had few options, considering how well Hughes has pitched this season -- and how poorly his main competition for a playoff start, A.J. Burnett, has thrown. Including a sharp inning of relief last weekend against the Red Sox, Hughes completed his first full season as a starting pitcher with an 18-8 record and a 4.19 ERA.
Hughes' critics will point to his 4.90 ERA after the All-Star break as evidence that he faded somewhat down the stretch. His proponents, including manager Joe Girardi, will look simply at his final three outings of the season, in which Hughes posted a 1-0 record with a 2.70 ERA.
And now Hughes can lean on his postseason history. Last October and November, he appeared in relief in nine of the Yankees' 15 postseason games, struggling with an 8.53 ERA but gaining valuable experience along the way.
"Just having that experience last year helps," Hughes said. "The playoffs are magnified, and this is the biggest start of the year for me. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
So, too, are the Yankees, who will rely on Hughes to help them knock out the Twins without so much as a whimper.
"I just hope Phil comes ready and pitches a good ballgame," catcher Jorge Posada said. "We need him to step up. We haven't done anything yet."