A-Rod, Yanks back sharp Hughes

A-Rod, Yanks back sharp Hughes

CLEVELAND -- It's a strange prospect for the Yankees.

A team that has relied on experience and big-money stars for much of the past decade have entrusted their playoff fortunes in the hands of two of the game's four-youngest pitchers.

No pressure, kids.

Yet Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are no ordinary 21-year-olds. And in the tension-filled atmosphere of a soldout Jacobs Field on Friday night, the pair showed just why they may be better stretch run options than any quick-fix trade deadline move could have offered in the Yankees' 6-1 dusting of first-place Cleveland.

Hughes, in his second start back from the disabled list, was brilliant over six innings and Chamberlain, in his second big league outing, was even better over the next two in a message-sending win that lifted the Yankees into a first-place tie with Seattle in the American League Wild Card race.

Yes, the Yankees are back. By winning 20 of their last 27 games, the Bombers now find themselves back in a setting -- leading a race -- they haven't seen since Opening Day.

And on Friday, it was thanks to the improbably green duo.

"To come up and contribute on a team like this where they haven't seen this [youth] in a while, " Hughes said, "it's a pretty cool thing."

Said Chamberlain, "Age is just a number."

Perhaps that will offer some consolation to the Indians' bats, which came in with baseball's fifth-best run-scoring offense.

Hughes gave up just one run on four hits while striking out six over six innings. Tactically mixing his curve and change with a flawlessly commanded fastball, the right-hander kept the Tribe flailing all night.

"He really pitched tonight," said bench coach Don Mattingly, who led the club Friday night while manager Joe Torre served his one-game suspension for his role in Tuesday's melee in Toronto.

Hughes' second career win was particularly welcome after his disappointing return from the disabled list. On Saturday against Kansas City, Hughes was battered for six runs over just 4 2/3 innings.

That changed Friday, thanks to a pair of mechanical changes Hughes worked on during his week's side sessions. Whereas last time out, he positioned himself on the far right side of the rubber and rushed through his delivery, Hughes shifted to the slab's middle Friday and made a conscious effort to slow himself down once he got into the set position.

"Both of [the changes] felt like they really paid off," Hughes said.

And what about the other guy, Chamberlain?

"This other kid, wow," third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "That's pretty darn electric stuff. I'm glad I don't need to hit that guy."

Chamberlain tossed two perfect innings and struck out four in the seventh and eighth, his devastating slider and high 90s fastball leaving Cleveland's bats with hardly a chance. In the eighth inning, he consecutively struck out Josh Barfield, Grady Sizemore and Kenny Lofton, all swinging.

All this came from Chamberlain in his second big league appearance -- in a pennant race and in the opener of a defining three-week stretch that sees the Yankees playing 17 games against playoff-contending clubs.

"Pressure's what you make of it," Chamberlain said. "I try not to think about it."

Same for Hughes, his four career outings making him the graybeard of the two.

"To be honest, it didn't feel any different than any other game."

Said shortstop Derek Jeter: "They don't seem fazed by anything. They have a lot of confidence in their ability. And they should."

Offensively, Rodriguez laced his 37th homer of the season over the center-field wall in the second, Melky Cabrera extended his hitting streak to a career-high 15 games and the Yankees' offense tagged one of the league's hottest pitchers, Fausto Carmona, with four runs over seven innings. Yet the way Hughes and Chamberlain were throwing, it didn't seem to matter.

Not that they'll say as much. The two 21-year-old locker neighbors in the corner of Cleveland's visiting clubhouse are still deferring to the club's veterans.

"Right now, we're getting our feet wet," Hughes said. "We're soaking it in."

But give them a few more weeks, a few more seasons, and perhaps they'll be the stars. They were Friday.

"Hopefully it can continue for a lot of years," Hughes said with a smile.

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