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Hughes, offense struggle in loss to Rays

Hughes, offense struggle in loss

NEW YORK -- With the good vibes of a Red Sox sweep still floating over Yankee Stadium on Friday night, there wasn't much that the Yankees -- the proud owners of a shiny new American League Wild Card lead -- could have done to spoil the mood.

Other than lose, that is.

And lose they did, 9-1, at the hands of the Devil Rays -- the last-place Devil Rays, who have managed to salvage almost half the games they've played against their AL East superiors this season. Tampa Bay won this game as much as New York lost it, which isn't much consolation.

"We did everything the same today, except we didn't get the same result," said manager Joe Torre. "You're not going to win every game."

But you still want to. Phil Hughes wanted to win this one, to be sure, though his results had little correlation with his desires. The first three Devil Rays to face him doubled, singled and walked in succession, and Hughes didn't fare much better as his night progressed. He gave up one run in the first inning, two in the third and a final pair in the fifth before being knocked out of the game, just 4 1/3 innings after he'd started it.

And the Yankees, who had won three straight this week and re-established themselves as playoff contenders, were left looking for answers.

"I don't think it's going to be easy with any games we lose down the stretch," said leadoff hitter Johnny Damon. "We've just got to get back to what made us successful."

What made them successful was starting pitching. After Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Chien-Ming Wang all tossed dandies -- combining to allow just four runs in 20 collective innings this week -- the Yankees handed the winning streak to Hughes. The rookie didn't flash the high-end velocity that made him a scout's dream, but even more troubling, he didn't show the control that had turned him into the Yankees' top prospect.

Hughes has now lost back-to-back decisions and has allowed five runs in each of his last three starts. He's been knocked out earlier and earlier each time, and on Friday did not finish the fifth for the third time in his eight-start career.

"I just wasn't throwing a lot of strikes," Hughes said. "That's the most frustrating part. I've always thrown strikes, and when it doesn't seem like you're doing what you've always done, it gets in your head a little bit."

Hughes walked four batters, and all but one came around to touch home plate. He's now walked 10 over his last three starts after walking only nine in his first five. Not surprisingly, his ERA has risen from 4.44 over those first five starts to 7.41 in the three outings since.

When Hughes did throw strikes, they were battered all over the ballpark. Former Yankees farmhand Carlos Pena homered twice -- once off Hughes -- and the Devil Rays sprayed another six singles to every part of the field.

The seven hits matched a career high for Hughes, though like the walks, the hits were a matter of control.

"He was getting behind in the count, and he had to throw predictable pitches in predictable counts," Torre said. "That was the biggest problem. That's the pitcher's dread."

The Yankees were as much a victim of Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine's quiet brilliance as they were of their own pitcher's wildness. Sonnanstine peppered the strike zone with a mix of pitches, holding an impromptu strike-throwing clinic. The Yankees got only two singles off him, and their lone run was as much a product of a Tampa Bay error as it was of Alex Rodriguez's timely hit.

Torre found a positive in the loss -- "We didn't waste any offense," he quipped -- but still couldn't find any answers.

So for now, the Yankees continue plugging toward the playoffs with a fractured pitching staff. Their top three starters are close to peak form, but the other two remain very much in doubt. Hughes has yet to prove he's ready to win consistently, whereas Saturday's starter, Ian Kennedy, has yet to don pinstripes.

But this is the Major Leagues, land of five-man rotations and 162-game seasons. And the Yankees need to find production in all five of those slots before the last of those 162 games has ended.

"Obviously, we're not going to win every game," Hughes said. "But we at least need quality starts."

That, and one quality finish.

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

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