Pitch count halts Pineda’s record chase

Michael Pineda had a chance to make history Sunday, but the pitch count police did him in. Rather than rant on like an old man about how pitchers are being babied to death these days, let me just say quickly what they can do with pitch counts. Shove ’em.

Here was Pineda using high fastballs, swirling sliders and freeze-frame changeups to embarrass one Baltimore hitter after another before a Mothers Day crowd of 39,059 at Yankee Stadium. Five of his first six outs were by strikeout. Over the fifth and sixth innings, he punched out six hitters in a row. The righthander added two more Ks in the seventh to bring his total to 16.

The fans, naturally, were loving it with their typical hand-clapping reaction to every two-strike pitch, a tradition that began at the Stadium June 17, 1978 when Ron Guidry set the franchise record with 18 strikeouts against the Angels. Pineda had a very good chance at breaking that mark or at least tying it. His pitch count, however, stood at 111. That was enough for manager Joe Girardi, who by the way was the catcher in the only other two games in which a Yankees pitcher struck out 16 batters — David Wells and David Cone, both in 1997.

So out came Pineda, depriving the crowd of an opportunity for an historic moment. Quite a few headed for the exits what with the Yankees comfortably in front at that point by five runs. The drama had exited the game with Pineda.

Girardi said he was unaware wha the club record was and that even if he did it would not have mattered. Considering how early in the season it is and that Pineda has a history of arm miseries in his brief career the call to the bullpen was the choice to make.

“Maybe if he was coming off a serious injury, it might have been a different story,” Girardi said.

A manager cannot worry about records. I get that. The idea is to win the game, which the Yankees did, 6-2, to take the series and boost their lead in the American League East to three games over second-place Tampa Bay where they will open a four-game set Monday night.

Personally, I could not help but be disappointed. When a pitcher is on the way Pineda was Sunday, one cannot help but want to see more, particularly if he is in range of a major achievement. After all, he was within four strikeouts of the all-time mark for a nine-inning game by Roger Clemens (twice) and Kerry Wood.

I was reminded of a game I watched on television one night early in the 2007 season. Jake Peavy, then with the Padres, had 16 Ks through seven innings against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. I was all prepared to watch him go for the record when Bud Black, then in his first year as San Diego’s manager, yanked him. Black, a former pitcher, yet!

Later that year when Peavy was named the National League Cy Young Award, I chatted with him by phone as the representative of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and asked him about that game.

“I’m with you, man,” Peavy told me. “I argued like crazy to stay in the game, but Skip hit me with that ‘It’s too early in the year’ stuff.”

That game was played April 25. Sunday was May 10. But another big difference is eight years. Major League Baseball is married to the pitch count these days and challenging it only marks you as a dinosaur.

Still, there is no evidence I see that holding pitchers back protects them from arm problems. There are more pitchers on the disabled list and lining up for Tommy John surgery than every before. In his 18-strikeout game, Guidry threw 138 pitches. He went on to win the American League Cy Young Award that year, pitched for 10 more years and nearly won a second Cy in 1985 but was runner-up to the Royals’ Bret Saberhagen.

Pineda was no more aware of the record than was Girardi and made no argument to stay in the game. He must have used the word “happy” two dozen times after the game to describe how he felt. Think of how often he might have said it if he were allowed to take a shot at the Yankees’ record book.

The way Pineda was pitching it is hard to remember that he was actually behind in the score early on. He hung a 2-2 slider to J.J. Hardy, who drove it to left field for his first home run this season. That was in the second inning when Pineda also struck out the side, which he did again in the fifth. By then, the Yankees had moved in front after a four-run fourth inning against Bud Norris.

Carlos Beltran, who is starting to swing the bat better, got the Yankees even with his first home run of the year coming in his 100th at-bat. A walk to Chase Headley and singles by Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees the lead. Jacoby Ellsbury extended the advantage with a two-run double.

There was no stopping Pineda now. Fortified by more offense later on — a home run by Brian McCann in the fifth and an RBI double by Gregorius in the seventh — Pineda just proceeded to attack Orioles hitters.

“I felt great; everything was working,” Pineda said. “I was happy to do this on Mothers Day because I know my Mom was watching in the Dominican.”

She is not the only person watching. Pineda has become one of the dominant pitchers in the league with a 5-0 record and 2.72 ERA. He has stepped up big-time to help the rotation deal with the loss to injury of Masahiro Tanaka. Pineda was asked if he feels that he is now the Yankees’ ace.

“I’m not focusing on that,” he said. “I just want to keep helping this team win.”

Dellin Betances struck out one batter in the seventh and one in the eighth. It maked only the third time Yankees pitchers had 18 strikeouts in a nine-inning game. In addition to the Guidry game, they did it July 26, 2011 at Seattle.

Pineda tied Cone’s club mark for strikeouts in a game by a righthander, but I sure would have liked to see him try to go for the all-time record.

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