Justin Verlander was the pitching star of the 2004 draft, but Phil Hughes and others were close behind

Phil Hughes gets the ball tonight as the Yankees try to get back in this ALCS. Pitchers usually say they’re not really facing the opposing pitcher, but it would be tough for Hughes to say that tonight since the other guy is Justin Verlander. At the moment, he’s the best in the game, and if he’s on top of his game, Hughes has little margin for error.

Seeing how the Yankees are hitting .192 in the postseason, he probably has little margin for error anyway. Theirs is a slump that extends up and down the lineup with Alex Rodriguez (.130), Robinson Cano (.163), Curtis Granderson (.115), Nick Swisher (.154), Russell Martin (.192) and Eric Chavez (0 for 11) all hitting under .200.

Meanwhile, Detroit starters haven’t allowed an earned run in week, a streak of 28 2/3 innings or 27 2/3 innings, depending on you figure partial innings. Four straight Detroit starters–Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister and Verlander–haven’t allowed an earned run.

Verlander and Hughes were taken in the 2004 draft, which has turned into a bounty of front line pitching. Verlander was the No. 2 overall pick that year, but there was plenty of quality right behind him: Homer Bailey (7), Jered Weaver (12), Hughes (23), Gio Gonzalez (38) and Huston Street (40).

Bill Butler (14) and Stephen Drew (15) also went early in that draft.

Verlander was in the Major Leagues a little more than a year after he was drafted and began the evolution into Best Pitcher in The Game status. He threw 100 mph and had an array of quality secondary pitches. He was a workhorse, too, pitching 200 innings in his second full Major League season and doing it every season since. He led the Major Leagues in innings and strikeouts the last two years and is a serious candidate for a second straight Cy Young Award.

Since going 11-17 in 2008, he’s 78-31 with a 2.95 ERA. He’s averaging 238 innings and 244 strikeouts in those four seasons, and even though he’s still just 29 years old, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said he has never seen a better pitcher in terms of focus and tunnel vision regarding getting his work done.

After the Tigers suffered that ninth-inning meltdown in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, Verlander got the ball and stopped the Oakland momentum with a complete-game shutout, a 122-pitch, 11-strikeout masterpiece.

Hughes is three years younger than Verlander and has had a bumpier ride. At his best—and he has been at this best several times this season—he’s dominant, with a power fastball and very good slider. Down the stretch, he came up big in a couple of critical games for the Yankees. With C.C. Sabathia pitching Game 4, the Yankees could dramatically change this ALCS if Hughes wins tonight.

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