David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.

BALTIMORE - Not too long ago, we were all very busy trying to crown the top pitcher in New York, a debate that drew its hurricane-force intensity from the remarkable starts by Michael Pineda and Matt Harvey.

Cy Young awards. Cooperstown. Everything seemed possible back then.

We forget who won.

But we do know this: It's incredibly difficult to be great over an entire season. To be consistently dominant, every five days -- or 11, as it was for Pineda on Friday night at Camden Yards -- requires special talent. Along with stamina, laser focus and maybe even a little luck.

These are not common traits, but we've seen all of those qualities in Pineda and Harvey. They just can be tricky to sustain, especially when you're coming off career-tilting surgeries like these two pitchers have endured.

When Masahiro Tanaka went down with forearm issues in April, the Yankees hastily anointed Pineda as their replacement No. 1, and he did not disappoint. Pineda went 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA in his first seven starts, with 54 strikeouts and three walks in 46 1/3 innings.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

One of those starts included an epic 16-strikeout matinee against the Orioles, the same foes who ripped him for nine hits and six runs in 4 1/3 innings in Friday night's 11-3 loss.

So what happened in between? Pineda cooled off a bit. Or regressed back to the mean. He was 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA during those middle starts, as the Yankees discussed ways in which they could dial back his escalating innings count.

They settled on the radical move of pulling Pineda from the rotation to give him a breather at the 70-inning mark.

It's hard to be the American Pharoah of a rotation when the front office is frequently tugging on your reins, but that's a non-negotiable point for the Yankees.

"This is something we didn't want to do," Joe Girardi said after Friday night's loss. "But we don't want to blow him out by July."

@Newsday

We're not sure exactly how much the long layoff factored into Pineda's stink-bomb. But how could it not? Managers and pitchers alike always talk about the importance of a meticulously mapped-out routine in preparing for each start.

If that's so critical to a pitcher's success, then the opposite also has to be true. Toss a grenade into that machinery and there has to be some collateral damage, right? Still, Pineda refused to use that as an excuse.

"I don't think so," Pineda said. "They tried to take care of me and give me a little rest. What happened tonight happens to everybody."

For the first six weeks, however, Pineda seemed immune to such things. Friday night, his slider betrayed him and he also was victimized by some shoddy defense, including Chase Headley's 14th error and Mason Williams misjudging a fly ball in his major-league debut.

But the Orioles also weren't fooled very much by Pineda, who had only two Ks. Many of the outs were hard-hit as Pineda's ERA climbed from 3.33 to 3.74. The closer that number gets to 4, the less we'll be thinking of Pineda as elite material, but a reversal is possible, too. Maybe once Pineda pitches on a regular five-day cycle again. Or something less than 11.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

As management types like to optimistically say, this is all part of the process. Whether it's coming back from a shoulder operation or Tommy John surgery, the road to greatness is strewn with potholes, as Harvey (7.20 ERA in his last four starts) also is discovering across town.

And that's changed the conversation for a while.