Phil Hughes made his ballyhooed and belated return to the rotation Thursday after spending most of 2009 in the bullpen and the first week and a half of '10 in extended spring games. He was effective, if inefficient, in his first regular-season start since May of last year, allowing two runs on three hits in five-plus innings and picking up the win in the Yankees' 6-2 victory over the Angels.
Five walks bloated Hughes' pitch count to a career high of 108, leading to his departure with two on and nobody out in the sixth.
"It wasn't really a great outing," Hughes admitted afterward, "but to be able to walk off with a lead and hear that reaction from the crowd felt good."
Hughes looked like the same guy the Yankees counted on to be their primary setup man last season in the first inning, retiring the Angels in order and striking out Erick Aybar and Torii Hunter with fastballs. He stuck predominantly with that fastball the first time through the Halos' lineup, deciding to work in his curveball, cutter and changeup in the later innings.
For the most part, that strategy worked well; Hughes struck out four Angels that first time through and allowed only one hard-hit ball -- Hideki Matsui's leadoff home run in the second.
Hughes mixed in his secondary stuff the next time through the order with moderate success. While the Angels still weren't squaring him up, he struggled to put away hitters, and his pitch count rose accordingly.
"There were pitches that just missed," Hughes said, mentioning that four of the five walks came on 3-2 counts. "The fact that it got to 3-2 was disappointing. There were opportunities to put guys away where I nibbled a little ... instead of attacking with my stuff."
After spending a lot of his time this spring working on a new changeup, Hughes used it sparingly on Thursday -- and exclusively to left-handed hitters. Only five of his 108 pitches were changeups, and four were out of the strike zone down. Four of them were also to Matsui -- the only hitter Hughes wanted to attack with the change going into the game.
"I'm not going to throw it just to throw it," Hughes said. "There were some points where maybe I could have thrown one, but where I just didn't feel like it was the proper pitch. That will come with more and more confidence."
Hughes added that he wants to be able to use the changeup in 3-1 and 3-2 counts to keep hitters off balance.
Hughes had plenty of confidence on Thursday in his improved cutter, which he can now throw to hitters on both sides of the batter's box and in almost any count. Whereas he threw the cutter mainly to right-handers in the past, he used it to strike out both Kendry Morales and Reggie Willits from the left side.
"The cutter is something I've worked on for a while now, and it felt good tonight. I threw it when guys were looking for fastballs, and it was really effective," Hughes said. "Sometimes in a fastball count, I almost prefer the cutter because it's moving away from the barrel, where a changeup sometimes fades toward the barrel."
Manager Joe Girardi let Hughes take the hill in the sixth in spite of the 97 pitches he had thrown through five. Hughes appreciated the move, even if he didn't take advantage of it. He allowed an infield single to Hunter and a walk to Matsui before giving way to David Robertson.
That didn't alter Girardi's thoughts on the start.
"I'm very happy with how he threw the baseball," the manager said. "He shut down a lineup that is an offensive lineup. I'm very pleased with what he did."
Tim Britton is an associate reporter MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.