Gopher balls at Stadium sink Hughes again

Considering the success the Yankees have had this year against teams from the American League Central, the past week was expected to be a strong one. That has not been the case. The Yankees split the four-game series against the Royals and need a victory Sunday to win the three-game set against the Twins.

Minnesota pulled even in the series Saturday because for the third time in six games the Yankees scored merely one run. An example of their desperation was employment of the old high-school play in the fourth inning with runners on first and third and two out. The idea is for the runner at first base to break for second and draw a throw. Once the catcher throws through to second base, the runner from first stops to avoid being tagged while the runner at third breaks for the plate and usually scores by the time the trail runner is tagged out in a rundown.

That was how manager Joe Girardi envisioned it when he had Zoilo Almonte break for second with Vernon Wells leading off third. The only problem is that Almonte went straight for the bag and was tagged out on a strong throw from Twins catcher Ryan Doumit before Wells crossed the plate.

“If [Almonte] stops, we have a run,” Girardi said. “He can’t be tagged out there. Vernon could have walked home.”

When runs are precious as they have been for the Yankees this season, such plays magnify. The Yankees scored in the first inning on a double by Ichiro Suzuki and a single by Robinson Cano and got nothing after that off Samuel Deduno (5-4) and two relievers.

For a while, that run looked huge behind the pitching of Phil Hughes, who struck out six of the first eight batters he faced en route to a 10-strikeout performance in 7 1/3 innings. Once again, the long ball poisoned a Hughes start at Yankee Stadium. The righthander was taken deep three times in the 4-1 loss. He has allowed 12 home runs in 54 1/3 innings at the Stadium compared to six dingers allowed in 48 starts on the road. To his credit, Hughes did not blame the ballpark.

“Two of those home runs were out anywhere,” he said.

The solo home run by Doumit in the seventh inning that unlocked a 1-1 score was a classic Stadium variety shot, a high fly that fell into the first few rows of the right field stands.

“That ball doesn’t go out in a lot of parks,” Girardi said, “but we have taken advantage of that, too.”

Unfortunately, not Saturday.

The solo homer Trevor Plouffe crushed in the second inning landed in the visitors’ bullpen, a healthy blow, and the two-run shot by Pedro Forimon struck off a sign in front of the second deck in right. There was nothing cheap about any of those. All three of the homers off Hughes came on 2-2 counts with one out.

“My slider was the best it has been all year,” Hughes said. “It just seems like one or two mistakes cost me the ballgame. It comes down to execution.”

The loss dropped Hughes’ record to 4-9. The Yankees’ 17-6 record against AL Central foes is still impressive, but a .500 week against the division has definitely been a letdown.

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