Phil Hughes has regained the form that made his first season with the Minnesota Twins such a success, and the approach he takes is one J.A. Happ could employ to work through recent struggles.
Two pitchers displaying very different command in recent starts face off Thursday night with the Twins hoping to halt a four-game losing streak with the Seattle Mariners in town.
Hughes (9-6, 3.93 ERA) has issued 12 walks all season and 28 in 52 starts in his time with the Twins. Happ (4-5, 4.27), who has greatly improved on his free passes since the start of 2014, has matched that mark in 15 starts and a relief effort since the beginning of May.
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Happ pitched a perfect relief inning Monday, but prior to that the left-hander had issued nine walks in 12 2-3 innings over three starts. He didn’t pick up a decision in any, though the club lost all three after he gave up 10 runs and 12 hits.
His 2.65 walks per nine innings remains his lowest mark, bettering last season’s 2.91 rate, but the recent slip is reminiscent of the 3.99 mark he put up from 2007-13.
The first-year Mariner gave up three runs with one hit, four walks and hit a batter in 1 2-3 innings of Saturday’s 8-6 home loss to Toronto, but he’s not yet ready to call his recent form a regression.
"That’s not me. It hasn’t been me all year. I’ll keep working to get better," Happ told MLB’s official website. "This was kind of an anomaly, I felt like. It’s certainly frustrating."
Hughes’ frustrating times are more than a month in his wake. The right-hander had a 4.79 ERA entering his start June 19, but he’s 5-0 with a 2.44 ERA and three walks in 48 innings of seven outings since. In Friday’s 10-1 home win over the New York Yankees, Hughes gave up seven hits in seven innings.
It was his first scoreless performance of the season, and all the hits were singles after surrendering 11 home runs in his previous eight starts.
"Anytime you’re giving up homers, you’re obviously giving up runs and that’s not the object of this game, so it was nice to go out there and stay away from that," Hughes said. "I made some adjustments early, tried to mix in some more offspeed pitches."
He’s 2-1 with a 0.81 ERA in his last three starts against the Mariners, while Happ is 1-1 with a 2.89 ERA in two against the Twins.
Mike Zunino has struck out in all six of his at-bats against Hughes, and Brian Dozier is 2 for 4 with a home run against Happ.
Minnesota (52-48) needs another strong start from Hughes after Wednesday’s 10-4 home loss to Pittsburgh sent it to its second four-game losing streak in the last 10, and another would match a season-worst five-game skid from June 8-13.
Since Hughes last pitched, the staff has a 7.50 ERA with nine home runs allowed and 13 walks, and that’s helped waste Aaron Hicks’ 9-for-16 run at the plate.
"It’s just that time of the year, I guess, where teams start to go into slumps and things just aren’t going our way," Hicks said.
Seattle (46-56) has dropped three in a row after Wednesday’s 8-2 home loss to Arizona completed the sweep. Over a 5-9 span, the Mariners have a 5.82 ERA from the rotation.
The lineup was without second baseman Robinson Cano, who is day to day with an abdominal strain.
The Twins won two of three in Seattle from April 24-26, giving them five wins in the last six meetings.