David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - We'll skip the pine-tar puns because the Yankees aren't in a joking mood these days. But the idea that Michael Pineda is coming back to help save the season tonight at Camden Yards is somewhat ironic, no?
The same Pineda that was everyone's punchline during the first month for his liberal use of that sticky goo. And smearing it recklessly enough to earn a 10-game suspension, an almost unheard of penalty for an outlaw practice that most pitchers readily admit to doing themselves -- just not in such an obvious fashion.
But that's supposed to be ancient history, right?
"Everything is in the past right now," Pineda said Monday after being informed of his return to the rotation. "I'm focused on my pitching."
If Pineda can do that, and keep his hand out of the pine-tar jar, the Yankees will be much better off. It also doesn't hurt that Baltimore, in mid-August, doesn't require the same kind of sticky assistance that a chilly April evening at Fenway Park does.
Best to avoid the stuff all together. Because you know Buck Showalter will have his eyes glued (sorry) to Pineda, from cleats to cap. Buck doesn't miss much -- he challenged a pitch Monday that apparently nicked Nelson Cruz on his big toe and won the replay -- so he could harass Pineda this time around for the sport of it.
But if Pineda remains clean, and resembles the pitcher he was before landing on the disabled list May 6 with a muscle injury in his surgically-repaired right shoulder, then the Yankees have a much-needed weapon to contain the dangerous Orioles.
It feels like a long time ago now, but Pineda had a 1.83 ERA in four starts, with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 192/3 innings. Returning from labrum surgery -- a devastating injury for a pitcher -- Pineda's fastball was sitting 95 mph with a wipeout slider. The pine-tar incidents wound up getting most of the attention, but the shoulder issue is the real Kryptonite for Pineda, and it will be interesting to see how he holds up over these next six weeks.
No matter how Pineda looks Wednesday night, he'll still be on a strict 90-pitch count, based on the fact the Yankees essentially are using his return as another rehab start. In some instances, that can be considered risky, as pitching in a major-league game carries far more pressure than say Trenton or Scranton.
But with so little time left in the season, and Pineda apparently convincing the Yankees he's up to the task, why not have him throw those 90 pitches in the middle of a wild-card race?
"The injury he had this year is, obviously, long-term less worrisome than what he had before," Joe Girardi said. "I feel good about him taking the mound. I'm not going to be, in the back of my mind, worried about him getting hurt."
If that's true, good for Girardi, who has plenty on his plate already. Because the Yankees can't seem to score without a throw or two bouncing off a helmet, they need to pitch almost flawlessly to win. They crossed the plate once over the weekend in two losses to the Indians, then got hammered by the Orioles in Monday's 11-3 rout.
Chris Capuano hung on for as long as he could Monday in allowing four runs over six innings. But that's enough to get these soft-hitting Yankees beat, and it appears Girardi could have more pitching questions on the horizon. After Tuesday's game was rained out, the team announced its probable rotation through the weekend series in Tampa Bay -- and Hiroki Kuroda's turn was skipped.
Kuroda complained of feeling less than 100 percent after Sunday's loss, when he suddenly lost command of his pitches in a wild fourth inning and had to be removed. While he didn't specify what was bothering him, we're at the point in the season when Kuroda might just be tired, as he was a year ago.
A fading Kuroda, to use Girardi's favorite expression, is "not what you want." But a rejuvenated Pineda would lessen that sting to some degree, and the rainout comes at a good time to give Kuroda a breather, if that's all he requires.
The Yankees, after all this time, really need Pineda.