CLEARWATER, Fla. — Just across a bridge from where he used to prepare to play major league baseball seasons, following a year surrounded by an ocean of doubt, Phil Hughes has a fish story to tell.
And from the sounds of it, he is quickly becoming hooked on his new team.
“I went out with Glen (fellow Minnesota pitcher Perkins), we went out there on a boat, and he caught some massive tuna-thing,” Hughes said with a hearty laugh. “Towards the evening, I caught a fish that was literally the same size as the bait I threw out there.”
Never mind that it was only the fourth or fifth time Hughes said he’s ever fished in his life.
He’s having fun again.
That was difficult for Hughes last season. The former Scranton/Wilkes-Barre star and New York Yankees World Series winner struggled to a 4-14 record and a 5.19 ERA — a disaster, as he calls it — and wasn’t offered a new contract by the Yankees.
So he left the organization he grew up in and signed a free agent contract during the offseason with the Minnesota Twins — who overlooked the 59 homers Hughes allowed over the last two years while pitching at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium and landed him with a three-year, $24 million contract.
“It’s been an easy transition,” Hughes said as spring training entered its final week of camp. “The guys have been great. I got a chance to kind of meet everybody at the TwinsFest, so I’d seen a lot of these guys before I got here. It’s felt pretty normal so far.
“Once you get going, the schedule’s pretty much the same.”
There are a few noticeable differences about Hughes, though.
Released from the constraints of the Yankees’ clean-cut image, Hughes is sporting a beard and a mustache this spring, and the tattoos covering both of his shoulders and running down his left upper arm these days would make A.J. Burnett jealous.
He’s trying to transform his pitching style, too.
After going 56-50 with a 4.53 ERA during seven seasons with the Yankees, Hughes is tinkering with his mechanics following his first losing season as a starting pitcher since he was a New York rookie.
“I’ve just been trying to stay on my back side a little bit longer,” said Hughes, who pitched the old Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees to the organization’s only Governors’ Cup championship in 2008 and followed that by helping the Yankees win the 2009 World Series. “I’m in a better position to throw the baseball. It’s not something that just happens overnight. But the more I do it, the more I feel there are good results.”
Something seems to be working.
Hughes, who has traditionally had very slow spring trainings in Tampa, brought a 1.04 ERA in Sunday’s spring training game against the Phillies at Bright House Field — about 20 minutes from where he previously did his spring work for the Yankees.
“I feel good,” said Hughes, who was 18-8 for the Yankees and was selected as an American League All-Star in 2010. “Arm strength, it’s been great. Now it’s kind of fine-tuning some things, reeling in everything.”
The Phillies didn’t let Hughes off the hook so easily.
In his worst spring training effort, Hughes surrendered his first home run of the spring when Jimmy Rollins took a fastball over the right field wall, allowed two hard doubles to Domonic Brown and gave up five runs over five innings Sunday. But he did get past the three inning barrier that had been the deepest he’d gone into a game previously.
“It was an 80-some pitch count,” Hughes said. “Obviously, I would have liked to fill out some more innings. Gave up some two-out hits in the third. I was throwing the ball all over every inning. My curve, I threw a good one to (Chase) Utley (for a strikeout), but I was just so inconsistent. My release point wasn’t there. But it’s part of the process.”
It is a process that will take Hughes sailing from the bright lights of New York to a new voyage with Minnesota. And it is a trip Hughes can hardly wait to make.
“Less than a week away (from opening day),” Hughes said. “Then it’s go-time.”