Phil Hughes flinched and raised his head toward the overcast sky. His body language displayed exasperation. Behind a protective screen near the mound, a few coaches exhaled when they saw Hughes was okay.

Just a few minutes into a simulated game at the teams minor-league complex, a comebacker barreled toward the mound and smacked him in the back — the same area of his body that got him into this mess in the first place.

"I wasn’t expecting that," Hughes said yesterday with a smile after a 41-pitch excursion broken up into two innings. "It’s a good test for me, I guess."

Hughes completed his assignment without any lingering discomfort from the bulging disk in his upper back, which he’s been treating for much of spring training. Both manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild expressed optimism about Hughes’ performance. Rothschild indicated Hughes’ velocity looked "pretty firm," while Girardi noted Hughes’ ability to settle down during his second inning.

But all three cautioned there is little need to rush Hughes, who could spend the first week on the disabled list. At the complex yesterday, he was just the opening act. A pair of stars waded among the minor leaguers on hand. After Hughes and reliever Cody Eppley finished simulated action, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera faced separate Class A squads from Toronto.