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Since trading Johan Santana in February 2008, the Twins have been without a true ace. Pitchers like Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano have masqueraded in the role, helping the Twins win a pair of division titles, but neither truly fit the bill. The enigmatic Liriano had the stuff, but could never be counted on, while Pavano had the veteran presence and grit, but a journeyman’s arm.
When the Twins signed Phil Hughes to a 3-year, $24 million contract last December, it was difficult not to be intrigued and a little puzzled. Hughes spent 7 Liriano-like seasons with the Yankees filled with peaks in valleys. He was brilliant in 2010 and 2012 and brutal in 2011 and 2013.
So far in 2014, the Twins have gotten the good Hughes. The 28-year-old righthander is 8-5 with 3.95 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings pitched. At 6-5, 240 lbs with broad shoulders, a menacing glare and a mid 90s fastball, Hughes passes the eye test, but can he be a real ace?
I chatted with the veteran hurler during the last homestand.
DZ: You are off to a good start with a new team, what’s that been like for you?
HUGHES: It’s been good. It’s kind of a transition period coming out of spring training. I felt welcomed from day one, everyone’s been great. Got off to kind of a slow start, but have been able to pitch well of late. It’s been good, so hopefully it continues.
DZ: What has clicked for you lately?
HUGHES: Just being aggressive. Going right after guys, attacking them with my fastball. Fortunately, I have been able to throw a lot of strikes and the defense has been great behind me. It’s kind of been a good formula, mixing in more off-speed stuff when I have to, but I am primarily a fastball guy. That’s kind of what I have been going with.
DZ: How much different is it playing in a place like Minnesota versus playing in New York?
HUGHES: Besides that there’s a little bit less media coverage which you expect - coming in a daily basis in New York, there can be tons of national outlets, things like that…it’s not so much different. You face a lot of the same teams there - the competition level is obviously the same. Living in Minnesota is obviously a different; I have a yard and trees and that sort of stuff now instead of living in the city. It’s been nice.
DZ: A little bit easier getting to the park too?
HUGHES: A little bit, yeah, no stop-and-go traffic. It’s a good thing.
DZ: Can you just take me through the free agent process, how you ended up here?
HUGHES: When the World Series ended, I think everybody becomes a free agent a week after that - I am not exactly sure…(I) went on vacation and told my agent not to bother me until I got back. I got back home and kind of just went over the teams that called and expressed interest and narrowed it down to places I could see myself going. Minnesota was high on the list just because of the city - I always liked coming here when I was in New York. It’s a beautiful city, new ballpark and a place that pitches to my style a little bit better. I kind of weighed everything out and thought this would be the best fit for me. That was it. It was pretty easy and a pretty seamless process.
DZ: Last year didn’t go the way you’d hoped, what did you take away from that experience?
HUGHES: It was tough, for sure. Anytime you don’t pitch well, it’s not an easy thing to go through, but it’s all experience…It was nice to be able to hit the reset button this off season and put that year behind me and focus on pitching more this year. That’s it.
DZ: Twins fans already knew you from Game 3 (of the ALDS) in 2010. What stands out about that game? Was that a high for your career so far?
HUGHES: Yeah, that was cool. Obviously in 2009, I was in the bullpen, so 2010 was my first opportunity to start in the post season. I pitched pretty well that game, so it was a great experience. Not to take away anything from those experiences I had in New York, because that was great, but it’s really good to be back over here.
DZ: Any of the guys say anything to you about that? Joe Mauer?
HUGHES: There is not a bunch of guys left from that team. I remember coming back for Twins Fest, telling Joe it’s good to be on this side of things so I don’t have to face him anymore though.
DZ: Your name came up way back in 2008 when the Twins were trying to trade Johan Santana…did you think about that at all when you signed here?
HUGHES: No, not really. That relationship with the Twins has always kind of been there. In 2008, my name was thrown around a little bit and even back in the draft, I remember the Twins had a bunch of picks the year I was drafted (2004) and they were a place that I know had expressed interest in drafting me. It didn’t happen then, but I am certainly glad to be here now.
DZ: How about the All Star Game, how cool would it be to pitch here?
HUGHES: It would be awesome, but I still have a lot of work to do. I’ve got to pitch well in the next few weeks, but it would be pretty cool to come back here and pitch in the All Star Game.
DZ: One last thing, where is your World Series ring right now?
HUGHES: Aaaahhh, I think it’s in a safe back home.
DZ: I am not going to steal it or anything.
HUGHES: (laughs) Yeah…I didn’t really wear it much, it’s just kind of one of things that I’ll put in a trophy case eventually, but it’s in a safe right now.
See more of David Zingler’s interviews with Twins players: