David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - Might be time to have that pine-tar talk with Michael Pineda again.
You know. Just to be safe.
Better yet, keep him away from the gooey stuff. Hide the clubhouse stash. The Yankees are going to need Pineda, who had a promising rehab start Sunday for Triple-A Scranton -- a few hours before David Phelps was forced to leave the Fenway Park mound because of what was called elbow inflammation.
Sound familiar? It was a month ago that Masahiro Tanaka complained of elbow discomfort in Cleveland. The initial diagnosis was inflammation -- which is actually a symptom of an injury, not a cause by itself. An MRI later revealed a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. For now, he's trying to avoid Tommy John surgery.
What we're trying to say is this Phelps thing is a very disturbing development. Terrible news all around, but the kind the Yankees have become way too familiar with this season.
Phelps sounded a little more at ease Sunday night after they rallied for an 8-7 win over the Red Sox, digging out of his early hole. A good night's sleep, however, wasn't likely.
"I've never had elbow issues, so I don't know what a bad feeling is," he said. "Any time it's your arm, there is concern."
We learned shortly after midnight that this wasn't the first time Phelps had been bothered by the stiffness, which he pointed to as near the triceps muscle. An MRI of the same area last month showed no structural damage to the ligament, and Phelps was told by the doctor, "As long as it's not getting worse, we're good."
Sunday night, it got worse. The Red Sox ripped Phelps for five runs in two innings, including a long homer by Dustin Pedroia, and he was pulled because of performance -- not pain. Afterward, Phelps told Girardi of the discomfort when asked. "I think he'll pitch again," Girardi said. "I don't know if it will be his next turn."
Based on Pineda's lengthy medical history, including shoulder repair, we figured that this DL stint was the end of his sticky comeback, as did the Yankees. But he needs to be more than a pine-scented punchline.
If Pineda had his way, he'd be in the Bronx on Tuesday after reporting no problems from his 58-pitch outing for Scranton. He allowed three hits, walked one and struck out four in 31/3 innings, then proclaimed himself fit to rejoin the rotation.
"My shoulder is really strong; it's healed," Pineda told Newsday's Stephen Haynes in Moosic, Pa. "I'm very happy and I'm ready to go now."
We can understand any lack of patience, given that he's been on the DL since May 6. But the Yankees would like to see a little more from Pineda, as in another two Triple-A starts, ideally in the 75- and 90-pitch range. Sunday night's injury to Phelps isn't likely to alter those plans, especially when the Yankees have been burned so often this season.
Our first impression was that it was an off night for Phelps, who had done a decent job making a transition from the bullpen and was 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA in his last nine starts.
He has gotten an average of 3.33 runs of support in 16 starts overall, the third-lowest mark in the American League and ninth-lowest in the majors among qualifying pitchers.
Shortly after his departure came the announcement that Phelps had left with elbow inflammation, a condition that has spread so wildly among major-leaguers that it feels as if it's contagious, like chicken pox.
With what the Yankees have endured, they'd prefer that pitching injuries were something that you could get once and never again. But they just keep happening, first to the front-line starters, then to the pitchers designed to be their insurance.
Phelps is scheduled to be examined Monday in New York, and if necessary, Chase Whitley would appear to be the most logical choice to move back into the rotation. He wasn't too good in his audition as a starter. But he does have one thing going for him. He's healthy.