"What you want to see is a guy throw the ball better, and he threw the ball better," Girardi said after the Yankees' 8-2 loss to the Orioles on Friday night. "It's something to build off of."
Searching for his first victory of the season, and hoping to break a two-start losing streak, Hughes was cruising along through five innings of a 1-1 standoff before everything fell apart. The Orioles scored seven runs in the sixth, knocking Hughes out after he gave up four hits and recorded just one out in the inning.
"If you look at it, I went into the sixth inning and it was a 1-1 game," said Hughes, who allowed five runs on a career-high nine hits despite throwing 60 of his 97 pitches for strikes. "It just shows how much things can turn so quickly. ... With three innings to go, it's really hard to get seven runs back. There was improvement -- it's just a matter of trying to see it."
Girardi chose to focus on the things Hughes did well through five innings -- command his fastball, get ahead in counts with first-pitch strikes, keep from rushing his delivery and maintain his composure when allowing baserunners -- rather than dwell on how quickly the game turned into a one-sided rout at the start of a 10-game, 11-day road swing for the Yankees.
"I think it's a much better start for him," Girardi said. "I thought he threw a lot better. I thought he was ahead in the count tonight. He got into some long counts, but he made some pitches. It was a lot better than it's been."
Consecutive singles to center field by Nick Markakis, Kevin Millar and Luke Scott put the Orioles up for good. After Aubrey Huff popped out, Adam Jones was credited with an infield hit when Alex Rodriguez double-clutched on a grounder up the third-base line and sailed a throw past first base, allowing Millar to score, Scott to reach third and Jones to advance to second.
That was all for Hughes, who found solace in the words from pitching coach Dave Eiland when he returned to the Yankees' dugout.
"If you do that every time, you're going to win a lot of games," Hughes said Eiland told him.
LaTroy Hawkins replaced Hughes and intentionally walked Ramon Hernandez to set up a double play. But pinch-hitter Jay Payton delivered a two-run single to give the Orioles a 5-1 lead. After Brian Roberts grounded out, Melvin Mora hit a two-run single, chasing Hawkins in favor of Edwar Ramirez.
Ramirez, who turned in 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief after being recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to bolster the Yankees' bullpen, surrendered a run-scoring single to Markakis, then fanned Millar to end the inning.
"Usually, improvement means you win a ballgame," Hughes said. "But the way things have been going, you try to take any positives you can, pitching-wise. Sometimes we're going to have slow nights with the bat. It's going to happen, especially with the offense we have. But you're going to have more games than not that they're going to put up a lot of runs."
New York couldn't capitalize on the generosity of Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera (1-0), who allowed six hits, walked three and twice hit Hideki Matsui in six-plus innings.
The right-hander allowed a baserunner in five of his six frames, but he minimized the damage with the help of a line-drive double play in the second, watched Markakis throw out Bobby Abreu at home to end the fourth and worked out of a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the sixth, striking out Melky Cabrera to end the inning.
Even when the Yankees threatened or made contact, they had little to show for it. In the sixth, Cabrera loaded the bases with two outs, sandwiching walks to Rodriguez and Robinson Cano around a pitch that drilled Matsui in the left thigh. But Melky Cabrera fanned to end the inning.
Chad Moeller, who drove in both of the Yankees' runs, led off the seventh with a homer to left field that drove Cabrera from the game. Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter singled off rookie reliever Randor Bierd, but the next two hitters hit scorching line drives for outs. Abreu lined out to first, and Rodriguez ripped a shot right into Mora's webbing at third base. Jamie Walker relieved Bierd and got Matsui to pop out to third.
"You look at your opportunities, and when you don't take advantage of them, it's going to hurt you," Girardi said. "You're not always going to get hits with runners in scoring position, but you look at the at-bats, and I thought the at-bats were pretty good."
"We want to win games, obviously, but I think it's good that I pitch better and have something that I can look back on positive," Hughes said.
"I thought he threw the ball a lot better than he had in his last two outings, and that's what you look at," Girardi said. "It's like at-bats. You look at a guy's at-bats, and if they're good at-bats and he's still struggling, they're still good at-bats. Eventually, that's going to pay off."
Hughes was asked whether he had lost three games in a row at any level.
"I doubt it," he said. "Maybe in Little League or something. I don't know."
Pete Kerzel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.