Hughes was recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre earlier in the afternoon, summoned to jump into the rotation while right-hander Chien-Ming Wang works on mechanical and physical issues at the club's Minor League complex in Tampa, Fla.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the hope was that Hughes would remain with the club for an extended period, not just filling in on a one-start basis, and the results on Tuesday made that decision even easier.
"The one thing you want as a manager is more starters throwing well," Girardi said. "That's a good thing. I don't want him to think that no matter what happens, he could possibly go back. We want him to pitch great and stay in the rotation. That's what we want all of our guys to do."
Winless in the big leagues since Sept. 27, 2007, Hughes showcased sharp stuff in handcuffing the Tigers' lineup to just two hits over six scoreless innings. Firing his fastball as high as 96 mph, Hughes spotted his curveball and used his cutter to strike out six, walking two. His biggest moment came in the fourth inning, inducing Tigers left fielder Josh Anderson to ground out with the bases loaded.
"He was great," Molina said. "He put the ball where he wanted to and was aggressive in the zone all night long. His pitches were working, and he was the Phil Hughes that everybody knows."
Touted as one of the Yankees' top pitching prospects, Hughes broke camp with New York last year as the No. 4 starter, but he made just six starts before being placed on the disabled list in late April with a stress fracture in his rib. He returned as a September callup, finishing 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA in eight games.
"There were points last year where, I'm not going to lie, I was pretty lost," Hughes said. "I felt like I had forgotten how to pitch and couldn't get things to fall into place for me. I just tried to keep working as hard as I could, and knew that with some time, I'd finally find myself back to where I was."
Hughes guessed that Tuesday was the best he has felt on a big league mound since the steamy evening of May 1, 2007, when he threw 6 1/3 hitless innings against Texas before leaving with a strained left hamstring. Pitching coach Dave Eiland agreed, saying that it was the best Hughes has looked since '07.
Reflecting on that start, Hughes said it felt like it was "ages ago," but he now has his legs underneath him and his arm strength has returned. Certainly a lot has changed: Girardi was in the ballpark that night -- as a commentator on the club's YES Network.
"I hope he builds off it," Girardi said. "He has the ability to pitch here. That's probably why he's been touted for a while, and we know that he has the ability to pitch here. Having the ability and being able to do it sometimes takes a little bit longer."
Matching Hughes, Tigers starter Edwin Jackson similarly stifled the Yankees through six scoreless innings as their struggles with runners in scoring position continued. That changed during a long seventh, as three Detroit relievers needed 56 pitches to record three outs against 14 New York batters.
The first of the runs -- two earned, eight unearned -- came as Jorge Posada stroked a pinch-hit sinking liner off reliever Ryan Perry that eluded Anderson in left field, rolling past him for a two-run error.
Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano added two-out run-scoring singles off Nate Robertson in the frame, and Melky Cabrera worked a bases-loaded walk from Brandon Lyon before Molina belted his grand slam into the bleachers in left-center field.
"It was great," Molina said. "Every time that you give runs to the team, it's always good. But you know, I care a lot about the pitching. I prefer to catch a shutout than [to hit] a grand slam. When you get both, that's the best."
It was just the second time in Major League history that a scoreless game was broken up in the seventh inning or later with a double-digit frame, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Reds put up a 10-spot on the Dodgers in the top of the 13th for a 10-0 win on May 15, 1919.
The victory gave the Yankees a much-needed chance to exhale after they suffered a series sweep at Boston's Fenway Park and lost the series opener to the Tigers.
During the seventh inning, players in the dugout were debating if anyone had logged a sacrifice and a grand slam in the same inning before Molina. Elias provided the answer: Oakland's Sal Bando was the last to do it -- on May 7, 1975, against the Angels.
That nugget of trivia might have been useful to settle the argument hours earlier on the bench, but the victory was a much more welcome contribution to the evening.
"It feels good to win," Girardi said. "It feels good to shake hands. It's nice to walk out there. We hadn't done it for a few days."