Mind Games

<b>Foothill High (Calif.)</b> All-American pitcher <b>Phil Hughes</b> throws in the upper 90s and has an unhittable slider, but his mental makeup is what makes him such a promising pro prospect.

There was never any doubt. Down 0-2 in the count in the sixth inning, Calabasas High first baseman Drew Saberhagen wasn't just anticipating a third straight fastball, he was banking on it.

So when Foothill High (Santa Ana) ace right-hander Phil Hughes fired down another heater, Saberhagen turned on it quicker than A-Rod did the Red Sox, blasting a two-out, two-run shot that pulled the Coyotes within four runs, 6-2, in the first round of the CIF playoffs last May. But Calabasas' attempt at a rally was short-lived, as an unfazed Hughes regrouped to strike out the Coyotes' next hitter on three straight pitches. He then breezed through the seventh inning to secure a 6-2 win for the Knights.

It's not that Hughes, now a 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior and SchoolSports All-American, didn't care about the homer. The stoic 17-year-old phenom simply knew that sulking would be counterproductive. In fact, Hughes understands that showing too much emotion either way typically leads to complacency or rallies — both unacceptable outcomes in his mind.

"If a guy gets down on himself, that's not a Hall of Fame major league guy," says Hughes, who has signed with Santa Clara University and is also expected to be an early-round selection in June's Major League Baseball Draft. "A guy on the mound has to be confident so a coach doesn't feel tentative putting him out there. If you have the attitude, you can do whatever you want."

Former Foothill baseball coach and current athletic director Vince Brown, who coached L.A. Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green and former N.Y. Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone during his 18-year coaching career, says Hughes is the most poised player he has ever worked with.

"Even when he's not on, he doesn't show it," says Brown, who stepped down at the end of last season after eight years as the Knights' head coach. "That creates a difficult mindset for kids who face him. If he happens to throw a bad pitch, he makes it look like he meant to."

Though armed with three devastating pitches — an electric fastball that has topped out at 97 mph and consistently lingers in the mid-90s, an unhittable late-breaking slider and a recently refined changeup that routinely slows down to around 80 mph — Hughes' most important attribute is his ability to follow up a mistake with brilliance. Simply put, he's unflappable.

That mindset is what helps separate Hughes from the abundance of talented flamethrowers in the O.C. and makes him the nation's No. 8 overall prep prospect in the Class of 2004, as rated by SchoolSports.com.

"A lot of people come around with good arms," says Foothill first-year head coach Gary Fishel, who served as an assistant to Brown for six seasons before taking over the Knights' helm this spring. "But Phil's got all the tools to be a quality pitcher. What impresses me the most about him is what a great mental makeup he has. You could come to a game and it'd be 10-0 either way, and he'd have the same composure on the mound."

Of course, Hughes never found himself down 10-0 as a junior, helping Foothill to a 24-4 record and the second round of the postseason. Using a sick fastball/slider combo, he allowed only eight earned runs in 72 innings of work last season, going 12-0 with a 0.78 ERA, 85 strikeouts and just 19 walks.

And if that's not enough, Hughes also hit .295 with a team-high 28 RBI as the Knights' cleanup hitter. In the playoff win against Calabasas, he had a grand slam and five RBI.

Hughes says he's always had a good arm, but he just dabbled in pitching through youth baseball. Growing up, he thrived at the plate and spent most of his time at third base before becoming primarily a pitcher during his sophomore season. And even then, he only switched from the hot corner because he realized pitching was his one-way ticket to varsity after riding the pine as a 5-foot-10 freshman on the freshman/sophomore team.

Now six inches taller, Hughes takes full advantage of his tall, muscular frame to fire major league-caliber fastballs at near vertical angles. His seemingly effortless motion is textbook quality and allows him to keep his velocity in the mid-90s through seven innings with little strain on his arm.

On the mound, Hughes is reminiscent of his favorite athlete, Boston Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling — a throwback power pitcher who attacks hitters and has a penchant for throwing hard and inside.

"To get guys out, you have to have that attitude," says Hughes. "Lots of guys try to work around guys, but to be dominating, you have to throw right at hitters. A lot of guys are afraid to hit guys, but if you pitch down the middle, they'll tear you apart all day."

Hughes learned that lesson the hard way at a tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., two seasons ago. As an inexperienced sophomore, Hughes spent most of the 2002 season as the Knights' No. 3 pitcher, relying mostly on his blazing fastball to blow hitters away. But in Scottsdale, an Arizona team teed off on Hughes like his fastballs were redundant offerings from a pitching machine.

"[Scottsdale] was an eye opener," says Brown. "He learned that it doesn't matter how hard you throw it — if you only have a fastball, they'll eventually sit on it. If you fall in love with the fastball, you can get in trouble."

After Scottsdale, it didn't take long for Hughes to evolve from a pure fireballer to an efficient pitcher. He adjusted his approach enough during his sophomore season to finish the year 2-1 with a 4.80 ERA, 13 strikeouts and eight walks in 22 innings. And ever since then, the learning curve has been linear.

As a junior, Hughes stifled SoCal hitters to the tune of a meager .190 batting average against him, becoming especially dominant after developing his slider midway through the season. And this season, Hughes will be working with a three-pitch repertoire for the first time because he's finally confident in his changeup.

Since his sophomore year, Hughes has worked with Foothill pitching coach Iran Novick year-round, making up for a childhood spent at third base. And with help from his family, Hughes meticulously chooses what teams to play for during the offseason to prevent overusing his arm. He has also switched from third to first base to save his arm when he's not pitching, and Fishel limits his hurlers to a pitch count of 70 per game during the first half of the season.

Those protective measures have worked. Hughes, who has worked nonstop since joining varsity, has yet to miss action with an injury.

"[In California], there is so much opportunities to play that our kids throw too much," says Brown. "That's something the Hughes family has been huge on. Scouts will find him. They don't need to throw him every weekend. They don't have to parade him on the mound."

And sure enough, scouts have found him. Hughes expects to be picked in either the first or second round of the MLB Draft this summer, and he says he'll consider skipping college depending on where he's drafted as well as financial considerations.

"Right now, he's got the capabilities of going to the next level," says Fishel. "He can even improve more. He's improved every year of high school, and I don't think he's plateaued.

I think he'll improve and get better. It doesn't mean he'll throw harder, but he'll become a better pitcher later on."

After all, his most important trait has nothing to do with his arm.


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