When the two right-handers face off in Sunday's game between the AL East rivals to conclude the season-opening series at Tropicana Field, they'll be making their 2012 debuts and hoping to set the tone for a strong season. If they do, they could be key components to championship-caliber rotations. After Saturday night's 8-6 win, Tampa Bay will be targeting a sweep in the finale.
For Hughes, a fresh start could be what the doctor ordered -- literally. The Yankees are hoping that Hughes, who won't turn 26 until late June, is more like the pitcher who went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 2010 than the guy who went 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA with right arm fatigue and shoulder woes that sapped his velocity, leading to three months on the sidelines last year.
If this year's Grapefruit League statistics -- he posted a 1.56 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings -- are any indication, Hughes should be over those health issues.
"I just came in and wanted to throw the ball well," Hughes said of his approach this spring. "I didn't want to think any further into it; I just wanted to make some tough decisions for these guys. I felt like I threw the ball well enough to be here, and that's really all I wanted to do."
Added Yankees manager Joe Girardi: "I'm excited to see that Phil again, our 2009 and '10 version. I'm excited to see it, because I know he worked extremely hard to get to where he's gotten to this point. It always helps to have that early success when you've put that kind of work in. It just makes you feel better."
The Rays will be feeling just fine if Hellickson can repeat the success that saw him reap one of baseball's most prestigious awards last year.
The right-hander went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA and pitched 189 innings. He says all systems are go this season -- especially after receiving a Major League education in his debut campaign.
"I knew it was a grind," Hellickson said. "I knew it was going to be a long season. I just didn't know how long. Thirty starts is tough. You have to work hard those four days in between your starts, and I learned a lot from these guys right here.
"Facing teams five, six times a year is tough. They pick up on things, and we pick up on things. I think this year is going to be more of the same. Having [veteran catcher] Jose [Molina] back there, he'll make the adjustments a little bit easier for me."
Yankees: A-Rod could sit on Sunday
Don't be surprised if third baseman Alex Rodriguez gets a day off Sunday, or at least a start at designated hitter. Eric Chavez would start at third if A-Rod is off or serving as the DH.
"He might get a day tomorrow," Girardi said. "Three days in a row on [artificial] turf -- I worry about some of our guys on that, especially early on."
Shortstop Derek Jeter leads all active players in hits with 3,091. He is the first Yankees player with that distinction since Johnny Mize in 1952, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Jeter owns the most hits by a shortstop in Major League history.
The Yankees will play 15 combined games against last year's other three AL playoff teams -- Detroit, Texas and Tampa Bay -- and the teams with the next-best 2011 records -- the Red Sox and Angels -- within their first 22 games of the season.
Rays: Regulars to return
Backup shortstop Reid Brignac and catcher Jose Lobaton started on Saturday, but Rays manager Joe Maddon said he will put everyday players Sean Rodriguez (shortstop) and Molina back in the lineup on Sunday.
"I wanted to make sure that Reid got in there, because I really like Sean tomorrow vs. Hughes, so I did not want to have Reid go the first three days without starting," Maddon said. "That's all that is. Lobaton needed to catch. I like Molina better tomorrow on Hughes than Lobaton."
The Rays failed to score five runs or more in each of their first 22 home games last season, the longest such streak in the Major Leagues since 1908. They scored five or more in each of their first two home games this season.
Nineteen of the Rays' first 22 games in 2012 will be against teams that were .500 or better last season. Saturday night was Tampa Bay's only night game until April 16.
The Yankees' Opening Day roster included 12 foreign-born players, which tied them with the Rockies for second most, behind only the Royals (13). There are a Major League-high eight countries represented on the Yankees' 40-man roster: Canada, Dominican Republic, Japan, Netherlands (Curacao), Panama, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and Venezuela.
The Rays have won 32 straight games when scoring five runs or more, which is the longest streak in the Majors and the longest by an AL club since their own club-record streak of 32, from May 28-Aug. 3, 2008.