NEW YORK (AP) — There wasn’t much reaction at Yankee Stadium when Phil Hughes’ name was announced during pregame introductions Sunday.
A small smattering of boos, maybe. Mostly, collective apathy from a crowd still filing in.
Then the right-hander went out and showed New York fans he’s no longer the floundering pitcher they last saw.
Looking all grown up on the mound with a well-manicured beard, Hughes threw eight poised innings in his return to the Bronx and wound up a winner when the Minnesota Twins rallied past the Yankees 7-2 behind big hits from Josh Willingham and Brian Dozier in a six-run ninth.
“It was a little bit strange,” said Hughes, who tipped his cap to New York pitching coach Larry Rothschild while walking onto the field.
“But once I got on the mound, it just kind of cleared away and I was just able to focus on how I was going to pitch. After the first inning, I was just hoping I wouldn’t start walking toward their dugout.”
Willingham belted a tying homer on the first pitch from closer David Robertson, denying rookie Chase Whitley his first major league victory. Robertson (0-2) then walked two batters and gave up Dozier’s two-out double, putting the Twins on top 3-2.
Eduardo Nunez, also let go by the Yankees, lined a two-run double on Matt Daley’s first pitch. Oswaldo Arcia added a two-run single off Matt Thornton to make it 7-2, all but sealing Minnesota’s second victory in the three-game series.
Hughes (6-1) held his former team to three hits — all in a row to begin the fourth — and retired his final 15 batters during his sixth straight win.
“I don’t think it means more than any other start,” he said.
“A little bit more nerves than usual, but thankfully I was throwing strikes early and was able to make some pitches,” Hughes explained. “Obviously, it was a half-inning away from being a different story, but the guys rallied there in the ninth and it was a solid win for us.”
Hughes never quite lived up to lofty expectations in New York, though he did make his mark during seven seasons in pinstripes. He was a key member of the bullpen in 2009, helping the Yankees to a World Series championship, and made the All-Star team while winning 18 games the following year.
But he faded to 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA last season, struggling with the homer-friendly dimensions at Yankee Stadium. With the second-highest flyball ratio among major league starters, he went 1-10 with a 6.32 ERA at home.
“He didn’t need too much real estate here today,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Minnesota, which plays at pitcher-friendly Target Field, signed Hughes to a $24 million, three-year contract in December, and he’s off to a terrific start with his new team. He was 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA in his previous seven starts, and acknowledged Friday there would be “some weird at-bats” when he faced his former teammates.
“We all know how big this is for him,” Gardenhire said before the game.
Hughes came right after the Yankees with 91-94 mph fastballs and cutters. He faced the minimum through three innings and only had trouble in the fourth.
Brett Gardner tripled off the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center and Derek Jeter singled. After a single by Jacoby Ellsbury and a rare walk to Brian McCann, Hughes did not permit another baserunner.
“He never stopped attacking,” Gardenhire said.
Ichiro Suzuki’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead. It stayed that way until the ninth, when Robertson was charged with five runs in two-thirds of an inning.
He was booed off the mound after his second blown save in 14 chances since taking over as closer for Mariano Rivera.
“I just made some big mistakes and it cost us the game,” Robertson said. “I stunk today, what can I say? ... I’m itching to get out there to prove I can still do this.”
Hughes struck out six and walked two, throwing 72 of 100 pitches for strikes against a lineup missing injured sluggers Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran.
“These are the guys we have and they’ve got to find a way to get it done,” manager Joe Girardi said.
Trevor Plouffe had a two-out RBI single for the Twins in the third.
Hughes went 178 straight batters without issuing a walk before McCann drew a free pass on a full count leading off the second.
“He was more mad about that than anything else,” Gardenhire said.
Dozier turned an artful double play to end the inning. The second baseman grabbed a bouncer toward the middle and went into a neat pop-up slide, touching the bag with his glove before throwing to first just in time to get Suzuki.
NOTES: Beltran (elbow) is headed to Tampa, Florida, to begin taking at-bats in extended spring training Monday. ... New York RHP David Phelps (1-2, 3.38 ERA) faces Seattle ace Felix Hernandez (7-1, 2.57) on Monday night in the makeup of an April 30 rainout. ... Minnesota RHP Kyle Gibson (4-4) starts Monday night in Milwaukee against ex-Twin Matt Garza (2-4).
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.