Training hard this winter in California, Hughes prepared for camp with the mindset that he would have a battle on his hands. The Yankees had seven starters before unloading A.J. Burnett to the Pirates in February, and Pettitte's surprising unretirement erased any ripples that Freddy Garcia's bruised right hand caused.
The Yankees don't expect to have Pettitte pitching in big league games until at least the beginning of May, but they do expect that he will be one of their starters at some point and can be what he was in 2010. The victory celebration following New York's spring rotation battle could have a short half-life.
"You can look over your shoulder every day in this business," manager Joe Girardi said. "That's the bottom line. You have to learn to look forward, and if you take care of your business and do what you're supposed to do, chances are you don't have to worry about looking over your shoulder."
Hughes doesn't care to look back anyway, not at a 2011 season that was marred by injury. His fastball velocity never appeared in the spring, and he missed 84 team games beginning in April with what the Yankees termed right shoulder inflammation.
Coming off an 18-win season in 2010, Hughes managed just a 5-5 record and 5.79 ERA in 17 games (14 starts) last season, a year he'd like to keep in the past.
"I feel a lot better," Hughes said. "It's easier to sleep at night, for sure, compared to last year, hearing the velocity issues and knowing that something was not right. Right now, I just feel like I can go out and pitch and not worry about all of that stuff; just worry about pitching and not throwing the ball as hard as I can to try to generate velocity."
On Tuesday, Hughes served up Joyce's long two-run homer on a cutter that didn't cut, but otherwise, he was satisfied with an outing in which he threw 50 of 73 pitches for strikes. Hughes estimated that he threw about 15 changeups and was most pleased with that progress.
"I really hadn't gotten a chance to throw as many changeups as I want," Hughes said. "It seems like [I've seen] a lot of quick swings this spring so far. If I really think about the one thing that I took a step forward with today, it was probably the changeup."
Girardi said that Hughes appears to be "night and day" from the 2011 version of himself, showing more break and cut on his pitches. Catcher Russell Martin agreed; after signing with the Yankees last year, Martin reviewed some of Hughes' game video from 2010 and was shocked to see the dropoff in the right-hander's velocity and stuff. That's not the case anymore.
"It looks like it's easier for him," Martin said. "He's not forcing the ball up there. It's nice and easy, simple mechanics, fluid. It shows that he came to camp in shape this year."
Aside from CC Sabathia's Opening Day assignment, there is little locked down in the Yankees' rotation picture. Hiroki Kuroda seems assured of a spot after signing a $10 million contract, but there have been concerns to some degree about Ivan Nova's command and Michael Pineda's velocity.
It was clear from his reaction to Pettitte's signing that Garcia expected to start after signing a $4 million deal, and though he has said all of the right things, Hughes certainly hoped to be in the rotation going north. Resolution to any of those lingering questions may still have to wait until the end of camp.
"It's hard to worry about it," Hughes said. "I just come in and do my work, and do everything I can, and try to leave it to the organization. Whether it's signing Andy Pettitte or coming in with six guys for five spots, I'm just trying to show the best stuff that I can and see where it takes me."