FORT MYERS, Fla. — Mike Pelfrey didn’t really know Phil Hughes before they became Twins teammates, even though they pitched in the same city prior to their arrivals one year apart in Minnesota. But Pelfrey does have not-so-fond memories of a time he and the Mets faced Hughes and the Yankees back in 2010.
It was Hughes’ first at-bat in his major league career. The last time he swung a bat was at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif. Pelfrey figured the opposing starting pitcher would be an easy out.
Turns out Hughes was anything but, much to the frustration of Pelfrey.
"I read the day before, ‘I’m excited. I haven’t hit since high school,’" Pelfrey recalls Hughes saying. "So the next day he comes and it’s like 12 pitches into the at-bat and the guy’s still fouling pitches off. I’m sitting there throwing every cuss word I can think of in my head. . . . I said, ‘Can somebody get this guy out of here? This is embarrassing.’
"I think I ended up getting him out, but goodness gracious."
What Pelfrey recalls as a 12-pitch at-bat was really just seven pitches, but it must have felt like a dozen as Hughes fouled off a few two-strike pitches before ultimately grounding out to the shortstop on the seventh pitch. That game was as much of an interaction as Pelfrey and Hughes had in New York, the city of bright lights and big expectations — expectations that neither pitcher quite lived up to during their respective years there.
Pelfrey’s time in the Big Apple ended when he had Tommy John surgery during the 2012 season. He signed with the Twins the following winter, ending a seven-year stint with the Mets that yielded a 50-54 record and a 4.36 ERA.
Hughes also spent seven years in New York, pitching for the Bronx Bombers during that time. After going 18-8 in 2010, the rest of Hughes’ time in pinstripes wasn’t as promising. Injuries shortened his 2011 season to just 14 starts, and he had the worst year of his career last season when he went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA.
In the pressure cooker that is New York, Hughes’ toughest season was magnified tenfold.
"You can’t do much worse than I did last year," Hughes said. "It can wear on you a little bit; just being in that atmosphere and not doing well can be kind of a rough situation. Not to say that getting out of that New York situation is easy, by any means, but it kind of gives you a chance to catch your breath a little bit."
The Twins are hoping that a change of scenery will go a long way for the 27-year-old right-hander, which is why they signed Hughes this offseason to help bolster the starting rotation. Though his statistics might not reflect it, Pelfrey enjoyed the transition from New York to Minnesota so much that he re-signed with the Twins this offseason, inking a two-year deal worth $11 million.
After seven seasons in New York — not all of which were pleasant — Pelfrey found a home in Minnesota last season and felt at ease in his new surroundings.
"I said so many times that if you’re going to be successful, there’s no better place to be successful than New York because that place, everything gets blown out of proportion," Pelfrey said. "You go out and everything’s for free. You never pay for anything. People want to give you stuff. It’s good.
"Unfortunately, I had a lot more bad times than I would have liked. When it’s bad, there’s no place worse because it’s the biggest media market. You try to not listen to it but it’s in the papers. You turn on your radio, you turn on your TV, that’s all they’re talking about. You have to answer questions every day, the same questions over and over, ‘Why are you struggling? Why can’t you do this?’ It wears on you."
Hughes and Pelfrey haven’t really had any conversations about the transition they’ve both made from New York to Minnesota, and the newly signed Hughes is still getting adjusted to his organization. He was able to see a bit of the Twin Cities during TwinsFest in January but admitted that the cold weather kept him mostly indoors.
Though he’s one of the new guys at the Twins’ camp in Fort Myers, Hughes did know several of his new teammates. That includes third baseman Trevor Plouffe, a fellow Southern California native. The two are both represented by agent Nez Balelo and were taken just three picks apart in the first round of the 2004 draft — Plouffe went 20th overall, while Hughes was taken at No. 23 by the Yankees. Hughes was a possibility for the Twins in that draft, but they instead took Plouffe and pitcher Glen Perkins (22nd overall) in the first round while Hughes was taken by the Yankees.
Hughes is finally in Minnesota by way of New York a decade later. After seven years playing in the biggest city in the country, Hughes hopes a move to the Midwest will jumpstart his career.
"You sort of get a chance to catch your breath a little bit and get in a situation where you don’t come in with that baggage or anything like that of fans that are disappointed or whatever you want to call it," Hughes said. "It’s a good chance to just start fresh and concentrate on baseball and not the other things that surround you."