As excruciating as April was for the Yankees, there’s no denying that the clouds have parted quite a bit this May. They’re playing better baseball. The bullpen has been as dominant as advertised. The offense that looked so defeated through the season’s first four weeks has come alive in the ones since. Even the starting pitching has been pleasantly surprising with strong rebounds by CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and Nathan Eovaldi seeming to find some consistency.
For all that has gone right with the team over the past several weeks though, there remains one squeaky wheel, one busted cog, one ominous cloud in an otherwise mostly-blue sky. His name is Michael Pineda.
Pineda took the hill against the Rays Saturday afternoon hoping to build off his last, let’s call it reasonable, outing in which he threw six innings and allowed three runs. It met the bare-minimum requirements for a quality start, but that’s represented something of a victory for Pineda so far in 2016. The Yankees would have happily taken more of the same from Big Mike on Saturday. Instead, he allowed six runs on nine hits in just three and 2/3 innings, and the Yankees fell to the Rays 9-5.
Pineda hit the first batter he saw. Then he gave up a double, a sac-fly and two more singles. He might have escaped the inning at that point with an almost-certain double play ball, but Steven Souza narrowly beat the throw to first. This allowed Corey Dickerson to double in another run. It was 3-0 Tampa after the first. They wouldn’t get much better.
After two quick outs to begin the second frame, Pineda allowed a hard line drive into right field, sinking and slicing away from Carlos Beltran. In his heyday, it’s the kind of tough catch that a gold glove defender like Beltran would make look routine. At 39 years old and with creaky knees, it was just a sad reminder of what used to be. Beltran came up short and Miller scampered all the way to third base for what was scored a triple. A batter later, Tampa led 5-0 after Evan Longoria took Pineda deep.
Beltran would help atone in the top of the fourth when he wrapped his 12th homer inside the foul pole in left, cutting Tampa’s lead to 5-1. Pineda would give that run back in the bottom half though, before being pulled. Nick Goody and Luis Cessa combined for 4 and 1/3 innings of relief to close out the game, sharing responsibility for a three-run Hank Conger homer in the fifth that put Tampa on top 9-1.
The Yankee offense would attempt to chip away at Tampa’s lead in the late innings, launching a singles-attack against reliever Enny Romero in the eighth that briefly put the tying run on deck. Ultimately, however, the hill was too far to climb.
The Play: Evan Longoria’s 2-run homer in the second (+.091 WPA)
Technically the highest WPA play of the game was Brad Miller’s double in the first inning that didn’t even score a run (+.106 WPA), which really speaks to the fact that there was no one single game-breaking moment that accounted for Tampa’s win. Instead, the Rays unleashed a cascade of moments, starting with Miller’s double and ending with Conger’s three-run blast in the fifth. Only when added together do the moments paint such a decisive victory. The best cross of a true highlight with a strong WPA-impact is this shot by Longoria, however. With Tampa already leading 3-0, Longoria made the Yankees pay for Beltran’s poor defense in right, smacking this two-out home run deep into left-center, extending Tampa’s lead to 5-0 and letting Yankee fans know what kind of afternoon they were in for.
Yankees: Austin Romine (3 for 4, 2 RBI)
Rays: Hank Conger (3 for 4, 1 HR, 2 2B, 2 R, 3 RBI)
-In his other start against Tampa in 2016, Pineda allowed seven runs in five innings, giving up 10 hits and four homers. Pineda has been bad too often this year, but his outings against the Rays have been nightmarish.
-Austin Romine raised his batting average to .314 on the season with a 3 for 4 day at the plate. His RBI single in the eighth was the fourth straight single for the Yankees in the inning, and gave fans a brief glimmer of hope when it put the tying run on deck.
-Beltran already has 12 homers before Memorial Day, after hitting 19 and 15 in the past two seasons in New York, respectively. He’s currently on pace to hit 40 bombs, a number he’s only reached once in his career way back in 2006.
“It’s a tough situation right now for me, but at the same time I know that I have what it takes to pitch at this level. I just have to keep making adjustments and talk with my pitching coach.” -Michael Pineda on his lackluster season so far
The Highlight: Beltran notches his 2,500th career hit with a homer
Beltran did his best to make up for his defensive misgivings by launching this shot inside the left-field foul pole in the third inning. The homer was Beltran’s 12th of the season, twice as many as anyone else on the team. It also happened to be the 2,500th hit of his career, further bolstering his eventual Hall of Fame case.
The Yankees and Rays will play the rubber game of this three-game series on Sunday. Nathan Eovaldi will look to continue his recent success after throwing back-to-back quality starts and being meltdown-free since May 1st. Opposing him will be Jake Odorizzi, who has been quite solid in 2016 with a 3.46 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 54 and 2/3 innings. Game time is 1:10 PM.
Lead photo: Kim Klement / USA Today Sports, Video: MLB.com