Yankees fans haven't had to wait quite as long for Michael Pineda's return to the starting rotation as they did from when he first injured his shoulder in spring training 2012, but the four months since his last start have felt like quite some time. Ivan Nova had just hit the disabled list with a torn UCL. CC Sabathia was still in the rotation and half of the fourteen players who appeared in Pineda's last start are injured or no longer with the team. Likewise, five of the eleven Red Sox in that game are gone. The Rangers had the the best record in the American League and have since plummeted to the worst record in baseball in a miserable, injury-filled 33-64 stretch. Such are the common developments of baseball's lengthy 162-game season.
Now, the once-promising starting rotation the Yankees began the season with is all but gone. The rotation Pineda departed has just one healthy starter remaining, and that man, Hiroki Kuroda, is being skipped this week to get some extra rest. Pineda returns to the rotation tonight in Baltimore with the Yankees playing some of their least inspiring baseball of the season of late. Since winning six out of seven, they've dropped three games in a row with the offense scoring just two deserved runs in the past three games. The pressure is on Pineda and his fellow surprising rotationmates of Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, Shane Greene, and Chris Capuano to keep the opposing teams off the scoreboard while the struggling offense tries to scratch out some runs. It's not an easy situation to return to, and yet the Yankees will ask Pineda to come back against the Orioles, one of the league's best offenses, which has homered more times than any other team in baseball.
Some people might expect Pineda to be just as dominant as the guy who wowed fans so much in spring training and the first three starts of the season. Joe Girardi's "Big Mike" was incredible, pitching to a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings, striking out 15 and walking just three batters. He seemed to be getting stronger, and then that embarrassing night in Boston happened on April 22nd.
Pineda slathered pine tar on his neck and was thrown out of the game in the second inning for this blatant mistake. It was already a bad day for him, as he had already surrendered a pair of runs on four hits with no strikeouts in a mere inning and a third, and Pineda departed in shame. He was suspended for 10 games, but that hardly seemed to matter, as while throwing a simulated game during his suspension, he suffered a Grade 1 lat strain. A month later, his rehab had to be shut down again with back inflammation, then yet again in late June with shoulder inflammation.
At last, he's making his return to the mound, but it would be wise for Yankees fans to exercise some restraint in their hopes for him. Although his repertoire is dynamic, he did only make three legitimate starts earlier this year, quite a small sample size. Teams obviously knew about him before from his pre-shoulder injury days with the Mariners in 2011, but getting three regular season games of footage with the post-injury Pineda this year likely makes him a little bit less of a mystery to opposing hitters. They were an exciting trio of starts, but remember that Chase Whitley also had an exciting trio of starts earlier in the season as well. Although there's obviously a big difference between Whitley and Pineda in terms of potential, Whitley's initial success remains a reminder about small sample size.
Pineda's surgically repaired shoulder also offers cause for concern. He had major shoulder surgery in 2012 that is very difficult for pitchers of any age to recover from, and both the recent lat injury and subsequent setbacks should make people at least a little uneasy putting too much trust in his right arm. I love what Pineda has to offer, but you can bet that I will be praying on every pitch he throws that his arm doesn't blow up. Also keep in mind that he's still building up stamina--in his two rehab starts with Triple-A Scranton, he threw 58 and 72 pitches, respectively and only went 4 1/3 innings in his last start. With some luck, he'll stay healthy and reach full strength soon, but who knows how close he is to there yet?
I will gladly take it if Pineda can give the Yankees five productive innings tonight (and avoid the pine tar). Anything more that that is gravy, and fans shouldn't be disappointed if that's all he can muster. It won't be a long start, but since Dellin Betances and David Robertson have each received at least four straight days off with an off-day coming tomorrow as well, they should be ready to help pick up the slack. Here's hoping that Pineda can return in style and that the offense can wake up to support him.