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Hughes must be better than ever in Game 3

DET View Full Game Coverage ROIT -- Hey, Phil -- throw a shutout.

This is both the kindest and most accurate advice you could give to Phil Hughes, who will be the starter for the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the 2012 American League Championship Series on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, TBS).

He could do it, too. He has the stuff. You've seen him. This is not an unrealistic request. He's been more erratic than one would like, but nobody questions his ability. I mean, look at how well he pitched against a difficult Baltimore lineup in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. He gave up just one run on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. And he struck out eight.

Unfortunately for him, he didn't get the decision in that game. And the Yankees didn't get the victory, either. And that underscores the problem that the Yankees in general, and Hughes in particular, have as we speak.

We are all awaiting the next explosion from the Yankees' offense, the second-highest scoring group in the Majors this season. There was one explosion -- five runs in the ninth inning of the ALDS opener in Baltimore. Since then? Six games, 13 runs. It is actually a little worse than that, since three of those games were extra-inning games. But a .205 team batting average covers the ground. Who are these imposters wearing the pinstripes?

Tale of the Tape: Game 3
Justin Verlander
Phil Hughes
2012 regular season
Overall: 33 GS, 17-8, 2.64 ERA, 60 BB, 239 K Overall: 32 GS, 16-13, 4.23 ERA, 46 BB, 165 K
Key stat: Two postseason starts, 16 innings, one earned run, 22 K and two wins Key stat: Struck out a postseason career-high eight batters, allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALDS
At Comerica Park
2012: 15 GS, 9-2, 1.65 ERA
Career: 113 GS, 66-25, 3.00 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 3.38 ERA
Career: 5 GS, 3-2, 2.78 ERA
Against this opponent
2012: 3 GS, 1-1, 3.10 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 5-4, 3.74 ERA
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 3.38 ERA
Career: 10 G, 8 GS, 5-4, 4.22 ERA
Loves to face: Mark Teixeira: 3-for-31, 10 K
Hates to face: Alex Rodriguez: 8-for-24, 3 HR, 7 RBI
Loves to face: Austin Jackson: 1-for-11, 4 K
Hates to face: Miguel Cabrera: 9-for-20, 4 HR, 9 RBI, 1.650 OPS
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: 7-1 with a 1.55 ERA in his last eight starts and has allowed one run or fewer in six of them. Why he'll win: His 16 wins tied for the team lead, and he's coming off one of the best starts of his postseason career.
Pitcher beware: Gave up five runs in nine total innings vs. New York in 2011 playoffs. Pitcher beware: Detroit hit righties as well as any team -- led MLB with .275 average, third with .771 OPS. Hughes' 35 HR allowed were tied for second most in MLB.
Bottom line: Win your home games, especially with your ace on the mound. Bottom line: Need Hughes to pitch the way he did in the ALDS.

"We're just hoping that we can keep the Yankees from swinging the bats over the next few days, but you're certainly concerned about it because they're just too good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Monday. "They're too good. ... I'm nervous about this, because you know the Yankees are going to break out. They're just too good."

Leyland, a shrewd character if ever there was one, can afford to be singing this particular tune. His guys stopped the Yanks in Games 1 and 2 with their third- and fourth-best starters. Now, the slumping Yankees will have to face one of the legitimately great ones, Justin Verlander, in Game 3. And after that, in Game 4, there will be Max Scherzer, whose performance level caught up with his terrific talent this season.

This brings us back to the Yankees' representative on the mound for Game 3 Tuesday night, Mr. Hughes. On June 3 of this season, he threw a complete game against Detroit in which he gave up just one run on four hits and three walks, with eight strikeouts. He can be this good.

The losing pitcher? Verlander. The Yankees got to him for five runs, three earned, in 6 1/3 innings.

All I advise Hughes to be is one run better than that. I would ask for one run again, but the way the Yankees have been hitting, giving up one run will likely lead only to defeat. Ask Hiroki Kuroda about what happened in Game 2, after he pitched with heart and soul and great effectiveness on three days' rest.

Still, the Yankees have scored runs off the great Verlander in the past. They scored four runs off him in a Division Series game in 2011, although Detroit and Verlander won that game.

On the other hand, on Aug. 6 of this year, Verlander gave up no earned runs to the Yankees over eight innings. And he struck out 14.

It might look, superficially, like there is a tremendous amount of pressure on Hughes. The Yankees are down in the ALCS, 2-0, they aren't hitting and he's matched against one of the best in the game. But he's an underdog here. Expectations are not Yankee-like. He is not expected to outpitch the awe-inspiring Verlander. But on June 3, he did. It could happen again. Hughes knows this.

"I just have to go out there and pitch, that's all it boils down to."
-- Phil Hughes

"I just have to go out there and pitch, that's all it boils down to," Hughes said Monday. "Not really worry about being down 0-2; that Verlander is on the mound; that we don't have our captain."

Derek Jeter's absence hurts on as many different levels as you care to name. The captain, the spiritual leader, the focal point, the proven champion, he is also missed now because he was one of the few Yankees who was actually hitting the ball.

In their seven postseason games this season, the Yankees' starting pitchers have pitched well enough to win every game. But the futility of the Yankees' offense has counteracted the excellence on the mound.

Hughes says that the reasonable expectation that Game 3 will be a low-scoring contest doesn't alter his basic game plan.

"The game plan that we have going into it is to shut down the team as best we can," Hughes said. "So that doesn't change. I'm trying to throw up as many zeros as I can."

Phil, the way your team has been hitting and the way Verlander has been pitching, the correct number of zeros for you to throw up would be nine.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

New York Yankees, Phil Hughes