Despite fingernail problem, Hughes pitching like Twins ace

Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes allowed just one run in seven innings while striking out eight Indians in Minnesota's 4-1 victory over Cleveland on Thursday.

Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Not even a cracked fingernail can slow Phil Hughes down.

The Twins right-hander has looked the part of a staff ace this month, continuing with another solid performance in Thursday’s series finale against Cleveland. Hughes allowed just one run in seven innings while striking out eight Indians in Minnesota’s 4-1 victory.

During the game, though, a fingernail problem — one Hughes has dealt with for most of the year — elicited a visit from manager Ron Gardenhire and assistant athletic trainer Lanning Tucker in the top of the seventh. Hughes not only stayed in the game, but he retired the next three batters he faced en route to his 14th victory of the season.

It was the fourth start in a row in which Hughes allowed just one run. His ERA in those four August starts: a paltry 1.32.

"When you get on good stretches, everything’s kind of working for you," Hughes said after Thursday’s win. "Everything just falls into place. It can be contagious if you get a good run going. Fortunately right now, I’m throwing the ball pretty well."

Hughes has done so despite the reappearance of a cracked fingernail on his right index finger, the byproduct of the way he throws his spike curveball. It’s a pitch that has been effective for Hughes throughout the season, but he’s had to keep a close watch on his fingernail as a result. Though it may seem like a minor injury, it can affect the way a pitcher grips the ball. In Hughes’ case, his curveball could be limited or eliminated by a really bad crack.

Twins 4, Indians 1

The quick fix for a crack in the fingernail: superglue. Really.

"Sometimes it cracks and it’ll just get worse on curveballs and stuff like that," Hughes said. "For the most part it’s pretty good. I just have to constantly keep an eye on it and superglue and file it down. It’s not a fun thing to deal with, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting my curveball too much."

The only run Hughes gave up Thursday came in the top of the fifth inning after the Twins had already jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the previous inning on a homer by Kennys Vargas. Hughes left a 1-2 cutter over the plate, and Cleveland designated hitter Zach Walters put it in the right-field seats to tie the game.

That was one of just five hits allowed by Hughes, though, and the only one that went for extra bases. He scattered four singles and the solo blast through seven innings of work, striking out eight batters along the way.

Thursday’s outing continued a stretch in August in which Hughes has pitched arguably the best he has all season. In four starts this month, Hughes is now 4-0 with a 1.32 ERA. On top of that, he’s struck out 30 batters and walked just two in his last 27 1/3 innings.

"It just comes back to he’s back to the basics now. He’s throwing the ball great," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "You saw him again today. He’s pounding the strike zone. A nice little breaking ball when he needed it. He moved the ball in and out. He was in control of the game."

With Thursday’s victory, Hughes moves to 14-8 on the year, the Twins’ first 14-game winner since 2010. He lowered his ERA to 3.65, the lowest it’s been since late June before he went through a handful of less-than-stellar outings. Thursday also marked the first time this year that Hughes has won four straight starts.

Hughes will still have a handful of starts to close out his first season with the Twins. When he does, he’ll have a chance to set a new personal best for strikeouts in a season. After fanning eight batters Thursday, he now has 148 strikeouts in 2014, just 17 shy of his career high of 165 back in 2012.

If Hughes’ current roll continues, he should be on pace to do just that — as long as he has enough superglue.

"I wouldn’t be able to throw a curveball, so I’d be going out there with two pitches, which is not something I want to have to do," Hughes said. "Knock on wood, fortunately I’ve been able to kind of keep (the fingernail) at a level where it’s OK and I can deal with it."

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