David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - If anyone needed a fresh September start, in every sense of the word, it was Michael Pineda. Sidelined for nearly a month, because of a forearm muscle strain, Pineda returned a week ago to a Yankees' rotation that seemingly had passed him by.
The promotion of the wonder boy, Luis Severino, along with Nathan Eovaldi's diligent climb up the learning curve, changed how we thought about the Yankees' front five. All along, we were led to believe this was a two-pitcher show, starring Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka.
Then Pineda began to crumble toward the end of July, before disappearing completely. And who knew what to expect upon his return?
If nothing else, Pineda restored some of the Yankees' tested faith with Tuesday's impressive performance in the 3-1 victory over the Red Sox. After stumbling in his first start back from the DL against the Astros last week, Pineda flipped the calendar to April again, churning through the Sox with the machine-like efficiency he displayed earlier this season.
Pineda allowed four hits and one run over six innings, striking out seven without a walk. Of his 92 pitches, 68 were strikes. And with Justin Wilson warming in the bullpen, Pineda whiffed David Ortiz on a 90-mph slider to cap his evening in style. As catcher Brian McCann later explained, Pineda's cutter also was an effective weapon again, breaking bats of lefty hitters.
"That was as good as it gets," McCann said. "He was dominant. When he's doing that, and you have to cover both sides of the plate off him, your chances go way down."
This was the pre-injury Pineda the Yankees always referred to when pairing him atop the rotation with Tanaka, confident in the belief those two could lead them to the playoffs and beyond. He just hadn't been around lately. Before Tuesday, Pineda was 0-3 with a 7.88 ERA in his previous three starts, with the monthlong DL stint between the second and third.
Last Thursday's misfire against Houston raised the possibility that maybe Pineda couldn't be counted on again this season. He lasted only 41/3 innings and gave up five runs. Some of that was pinned on the layoff, but Pineda hadn't looked right since back-to-back early July starts, when he fanned 16 and walked one over 132/3 innings.
On Tuesday, Pineda showed why he leads the American League with a 7.94 walk-to-strikeout ratio, and second only to the Nationals' Max Scherzer (8.04) overall. By commanding the strike zone and throwing 97 mph with a wicked slider in the 88-90 range. As stifling as the Sox' Rick Porcello was in striking out a career-high 13 over eight innings, Pineda made sure Boston stayed frustrated at the plate as well.
"I think it was important for him to have a good start," Joe Girardi said. "That was the Michael that we've seen."
The Red Sox only put two runners in scoring position against Pineda.
Both times with doubles by the sizzling Jackie Bradley Jr., who put Boston ahead, 1-0, in the third inning on Pablo Sandoval's two-out single. The other threat came in the fifth, after the Yankees went up 2-1. Pineda whiffed both Brock Holt and Blake Swihart on sliders before Bradley drilled another double. But Pineda struck out Mookie Betts looking at a 94-mph cutter. In handing off the lead, Pineda improved to 10-8, and reached double-digit wins for the first time in his career, despite getting two or fewer runs of support in his sixth consecutive start.
"I was feeling very strong," Pineda said. "Everything was working good and I'm very happy for that."
The Yankees also have to be thrilled. While their immediate goal is chasing down the AL East-leading Blue Jays, these next five weeks will serve as an evaluation period for sorting out a playoff rotation. A revived Pineda not only gives the Yankees a fighting chance at the division crown, he makes them a more dangerous October foe. Where Pineda slots in, however, is no longer a done deal. "There's a lot of baseball left to be played," Girardi said. "Eovaldi has definitely matured. Severino has pitched extremely well. We'll just see what they do."
Only now can we fully consider Pineda back in that discussion again.