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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Michael Pineda again undone in first inning

Michael Pineda #35 of the New York Yankees

Michael Pineda #35 of the New York Yankees talks with teammate Brian McCann #34 during the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in the Bronx Borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When is it OK to stop believing in the unrealized potential of Michael Pineda? Five more starts? Fifteen? Another year from now?

It wasn’t all that long ago people were debating the merits of him over Matt Harvey (that actually happened for a brief spell last spring). And we’re not saying Pineda isn’t a serviceable pitcher with the occasional glimpses of greatness. The troubling part, the question that keeps coming up over and over again, is why the heck isn’t he better?

At this point, the only thing we can say with certainty is yes, the Yankees scored a convincing win in the Pineda trade with the Mariners, considering that Jesus Montero, once an elite catching prospect, is now playing first base for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate.

Otherwise, we don’t know how to evaluate Pineda, who repeatedly seems to defy projections. With a mid-90s fastball, and an occasionally nasty slider, Pineda can be a strikeout machine. But the stunning, inexplicable lapses keep sabotaging his best efforts.

Take Wednesday night, when the Royals ripped Pineda for four runs in a 36-pitch first inning. Salvador Perez’s three-run homer, with two outs, was the big blast. But they went 4-for-4 against him that inning, the first two outs coming on a caught stealing and sacrifice fly.

For some reason, Pineda keeps stumbling out of the gate, as these first-inning flops have become the rule for him rather than exception. In seven starts, Pineda has a 15.43 ERA in the first inning, the result of opponents hitting 500 (19-for-38) with five home runs.

“He threw the ball so well in spring,” Girardi said after the Yankees’ 7-3 loss to the Royals. “It’s been a couple innings that really give him trouble. The stuff is there. We know that. We’ve got to get him going and we’ve got to get him going early.”

Before many fans even get to their seats, Pineda already has set the Yankees’ chances ablaze. But it’s what happens next that makes the enigmatic Pineda even more frustrating. Rather than roll over, and simply wear his own mess for the sake of the bullpen, Pineda often pulls himself together, as he did until the sixth inning Wednesday.

After erasing a leadoff walk with a double play, Pineda then walked the No. 8 hitter, Christian Colon, and gave up a single to Jarrod Dyson. That got him to 114 pitches and an immediate exit – but not off the hook, as Nick Goody made his night a little worse by allowing Lorenzo Cain’s two-run single. The late pair upped Pineda’s ERA to 6.28, almost double his career mark (3.28) in two-plus seasons with the Yankees. The loss also dropped him to 18-19 since his Bronx arrival.

“For me, I know I’m better than that,” Pineda said. “I’ve got to keep fighting.”

It’s early, but could Pineda possibly be going backwards? Despite averaging 103 pitches per start, he hasn’t recorded an out in the seventh inning this season. Nor has he lasted fewer than five innings. Pineda remains maddeningly in the middle. And that’s why he continues to be so aggravating for the Yankees.

With another seven strikeouts Wednesday, Pineda’s 9.54 K/9 rate ranks 15th among American League starters, better than Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander and Cole Hamels, just to name a few. The same raw ability that convinced Brian Cashman to trade for Pineda back in 2012 still appears to be there, and at age 27, he was meant to be a building block for the GM’s blossoming youth movement.

But now, all this time later, what exactly is Pineda, other than a $4.3-million question mark? The Yankees have him under team control him for one more arbitration year, so the clock is ticking. We always thought Pineda’s health, after the ’12 shoulder surgery, would be the limiting factor. But if his arm is sound, and this keeps happening, Pineda becomes a more baffling mystery.

And that much harder for the Yankees to have any faith in.

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