Michael Pineda's Comeback Is Shot in the Arm Yankees Need for Playoff Race

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Michael Pineda's Comeback Is Shot in the Arm Yankees Need for Playoff Race
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Twelve up, 12 down. 

Four innings into Michael Pineda's start on Wednesday night in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it was clear the New York Yankees had found yet another vaccine in the area where they've needed it the least in their quest for October baseball.

The 6'7”, 265-pounder was writing poetry for the story of his comeback. He had been suspended for 10 games after his start April 23, in which he was ejected after just 1.2 innings at Fenway Park with an obvious, embarrassing smear of pine tar across the back-right side of his neck.

He'd been on the disabled list since May 6.

Bottom of the first: groundout, strikeout, fly out. The second: pop out, fly out, strikeout. The third: groundout, groundout, strikeout. And the fourth: fly out, fly out, strikeout.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Through four frames, Pineda threw a first-pitch strike to all but two batters. His pitch count was low, he was spotting a fastball touching 95 mph, he was snapping off sharp-breaking balls that seemed to traverse the entire width of the plate and he was pitching to weak contact—at best.

Two easy fly outs, two lazy pop outs, four groundouts, four swinging strikeouts.

In the top of the third, Yankees backup catcher Francisco Cervelli went deep for just the second time this year, giving the Yankees and Pineda a two-run cushion.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis sent one to deep right field, and Martin Prado made a clutch play against the wall. It seemed like it could've ended up being that one great play from that one special outing.

But when all was said and done, it was far from special in the Yankees' eventual 5-3 loss. Because New York is scrambling for October now more than ever.

Since hitting the 2014 season's high point of seven games over .500 last Friday, the Bombers have promptly dropped four in a row to the Cleveland Indians and Orioles.

They erupted for 10 runs on Friday yet have scored seven since; they were shut out Saturday, held to one run Sunday and just three runs each on Monday and Wednesday.

And on Wednesday, when the Yankees needed help the most, they simply couldn't find it.

Dellin Betances, after two scoreless innings of relief, served up a game-tying home run to Jonathan Schoop. Shawn Kelley gave up the go-ahead, game-winning three-run blast to Adam Jones.

"We had a lead late, and that's one thing we've done well as a whole, as a bullpen," Kelley said, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch. "A lot of that's on me tonight."

But that's too compassionate.

The Yankees' problem stems from the same root since the beginning of April: The Bombers need to score more runs.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The offense mustered six total hits and only scratched across one additional run in the top of the ninth on a groundout.

Obviously the story after Wednesday's 5-3 loss is far from Hollywood, and clearly it's even farther from Cinderella.

But Pineda's happens to still be a pretty good one—and he could be the extra punch the Yankees need to push for the postseason.

He went a full five innings, allowing only one run and two hits. Hoch adds: "The Yankees saw signs of fatigue in the fifth inning and cut his evening short after just 67 pitches."

And it's not like Pineda wasn't set to continue after months away from a big league mound and only two rehab starts in the minors.

"I'm feeling good," Pineda said. "I feel like I want to pitch more, but it's my first start."

Prior to his pine-tar start, he'd gone three straight starts of six innings and one or fewer earned runs. He'd struck out 15 in just under 20 innings, walked only three and accumulated a sub-2.00 ERA.

That he had to come back from the mental anguish of his "cold-weather cure"—remember, he admitted: "I'll accept it because I know I make a mistake"—as well as from his physical ailments, speaks volumes about his resilience.

Michael Pineda Game Logs
Date IP Decision ER H K BB
April 5 6.0 L 1 5 5 0
April 10 6.0 W 1 4 7 2
April 16 6.0 W 0 4 3 1
April 23 1.2 L 2 4 0 0
Aug. 13 5.0 ND 1 2 4 0

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

And the story of the Yankees all season has been the underdog story of their pitching alongside their largely punchless hitting.

Despite losing four of their five Opening Day arms, Yankees starters still possessed the seventh-best fWAR in MLB and fourth-highest in the AL coming into Wednesday night's affair, per FanGraphs. 

In fact, check out just how well Yankees starters have done without CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Pineda for much of 2014:

Yankees Starters in 2014 (through Aug. 12)
WAR K/9 BB/9 SwStr%
Yankees 10.2 7.41 2.06 9.4
AL Rank 4th 7th 1st T3rd
MLB Rank 7th 14th 2nd T6th

Source: FanGraphs.com

Having been whittled down to only 20 percent of the plan for their initial rotation, the Yankees had walked the second-fewest batters per nine innings and generated the sixth-highest swinging-strike percentage in all of baseball entering Wednesday.

So add Pineda's arm—and healthy body—to this patchwork rotation, and consider the Yankees still see 42 games between now and the conclusion of the regular season. 

On Tuesday they had their mental day off due to rain. On Wednesday they had Pineda's first start since April showers.

But it was another unfortunately familiar tale of lackluster offense and a shoddy bullpen lacking the overall punch to snap the skid—the one that's beginning to look, smell and sort of feel like that early nail in the coffin for New York's playoff race.

"We've got to start winning series again," Joe Girardi said, per Hoch. "We have not won the last two series, and we've put ourselves in a little bit of a hole."

That second wild-card spot certainly makes things all the more interesting. Despite their eight-game deficit in the American League East—in which they sit third—the Yankees are still just 3.5 games back of the Detroit Tigers.  

Standings Through Aug. 13
AL East GB Wild Card GB
Baltimore (69-50) -- Los Angeles (70-49) +5.5
Toronto (63-59) 7.5 Detroit (64-54) --
New York (61-58) 8 Seattle (65-55) --
Tampa Bay (59-61) 10.5 Toronto (63-59) 3
Boston (54-65) 15 New York (61-58) 3.5

Source: MLB.com

"That's a little bit [of a] better number," Kelley said to Hoch after the game. "That seems a little more achievable at this point, but we've got to win every day. We've got to go out there and we got to win series and we got to win in our division. We didn't get it done." 

 

Statistics current through August 13, 2014, and courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Peter F. Richman is a Yankees featured columnist and expert, and a Bleacher Report copy editor. For more NYY opinions, discussion, debate and analysis, feel free to reach out via Twitter:  

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