MINNEAPOLIS — Phil Hughes reached down and the ball off the bat of Chicago Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber found the Minnesota Twins pitcher’s glove. Hughes tossed the ball to Joe Mauer at first base to end the eighth inning.
On a night where Hughes said it felt like his defense was constantly shifting behind him, Hughes and the Twins were seemingly in the right position and Hughes was in his best spot of the season.
Hughes (5-6) went eight innings for the second time this season and gave up just one run and two hits. Hughes didn’t walk a batter and struck out four. The two hits allowed were the lowest of his career in a start of at least eight innings as Minnesota won their third straight game with a 7-2 victory against Chicago.
"It’s definitely the best of the year so far," Hughes said. "I know so far this year it’s been a little disappointing for me. Coming back after a couple really nice wins against St. Louis and to carry momentum over to tonight was pretty big for us."
Hughes had plenty of games last season when things fell in place. But after leading the Twins with 16 wins, a 3.52 ERA and 186 strikeouts last season, he’s had trouble finding his precision and rhythm. The result was a 4.79 ERA entering play Friday. After setting a MLB record for strikeout-to-walk ratio last year at 11.63, Hughes had nine walks to 51 strikeouts.
After Anthony Rizzo homered for Chicago to lead off the fourth inning — Hughes has allowed a home run in 11 of his 14 starts and the 16 home runs he’s allowed this season tie what he gave up all of last season — the right-hander retired the final 15 batters he faced before J.R. Graham pitched the ninth.
"He did step it up a little bit," manager Paul Molitor said. "I’m sure he felt a lot better tonight about how he was throwing the ball, results aside. He just had a little more life and he was confident that he could get some jam shots and some swings-and-misses with his fastball.
"I like that he got a little bit of a lead and he tried to incorporate his change-up a little bit too. He didn’t have a really good feel, but he kept trying it which I think over the course of the remainder of the first half, second half will be a pitch I think he will continue to use more."
More of the same from Hughes could play a big part in Minnesota’s season. The Twins have contended in the American League Central without Hughes in top form.
"I really haven’t had my best stuff all year and kind of taken the mentality that I just have to find a way to get through it, and worry more about executing pitches and not so much the velocity or anything like that," Hughes said. "I really took the mindset of keeping the ball down in the zone, get the ball in when I had to and it seemed to work out pretty well."
Molitor said some thought was given to Hughes pitching the ninth, but after ending the eighth with Hughes at 95 pitches, the manager chose to end on a positive note and have Graham finish the game.
"I liked the idea of not pushing it with the good results that he had," Molitor said. "I think he would have been willing to go out there if we wanted him to, but I just thought that, ‘Hey, solid night, step forward, lets close it out after eight.’"
Minnesota scored twice in the bottom of the first, the second run coming home after Eddie Rosario made a heads-up play base-running when Chicago shortstop Starlin Castro dropped his head after an error. As soon as Castro looked down, Rosario raced home from third base.
Rosario scored again in the third on a Trevor Plouffe RBI double to give Hughes the cushion he needed.
"That’s more the Hughes we’re looking for," Plouffe said. "We know that’s the kind of guy he is. We haven’t scored a lot of runs for him, so I think maybe tonight we took some pressure off him when we scored those runs. But we look for him to be our guy. We’re about halfway through the season now and I think we’re going to rely on him a lot in the second half."
Hughes has pitched at least six innings in each of his last three starts and allowed seven runs over that span in 21 2/3 innings. He called Friday’s start, "OK" and "not my best."
"I know I have to be better and try to turn things around," Hughes said. "Hopefully worry about just executing pitches and not what my season’s been so far or anything like that."
Glut of outfielders led to Schafer’s release: Minnesota released outfielder Jordan Schafer on Friday because of the increased number of outfielders at the major-league level.
Schafer was ready to return from the disabled list but the Twins decided to release Schafer instead of send him on a rehab assignment or change their current outfield mix.
"I think the biggest thing is that there has been an influx of young outfielders here that have for the most part have done OK, some better than others," Molitor said. "There’s not a lot of space. (Shane) Robinson is an extra outfielder for now, not sure how it’s going to shake out. (Oswaldo) Arcia is still down (at Triple A). We’ve got Buxton and Hicks and Rosario, it became a bad fit. The discussions were that we didn’t have room for him up here. Triple A didn’t seem to make sense for where he’s at. Giving him a chance to get another job we felt was the best case for both sides."
Schafer started the season as the team’s center fielder and hit .217 with nine runs scored and five RBI in 27 games. But Minnesota had recalled Aaron Hicks, who is currently on the disabled list, and top prospect Byron Buxton while Schafer was on the disabled list. Robinson and Eddie Rosario could play center field if needed, as well.
"We’ve got center field depth so we decided to go a different direction here," Ryan said. "We got enough people there. I just didn’t see how it was going to work. So we made that decision yesterday, give him an opportunity to get another job someplace and move on."