BOSTON >> Michael Pineda’s two-year recovery from a shoulder injury and his promising start to the season is a compelling tale of perseverance and success. But those good feelings have been replaced by accusations, even mockery, over the New York Yankees pitcher’s apparent illegal use of a sticky foreign substance known as pine tar.
On April 10, he was accused by the Boston Red Sox of using pine tar during a game at Yankee Stadium, a charge he denied, saying it was dirt on the heel of his right hand.
On Wednesday night, however, confirmation was made by the home plate umpire at Fenway Park. Pineda was ejected in the second inning of the Red Sox’s 5-1 victory for having a wide smear of pine tar on the right side of his neck. He is subject to suspension.
During the previous incident, the Red Sox declined to protest. But Wednesday, Red Sox manager John Farrell emerged from the dugout and asked Gerry Davis, the home plate umpire and crew chief, to inspect Pineda.
In an almost farcical scene, considering Pineda had escaped detection against the very same team less than two weeks earlier, Davis walked to the mound. He told Pineda to turn around and performed a perfunctory inspection of his upper back. Then he dabbed his right index finger on the pitcher’s neck.
Davis looked at his finger, rubbed it against his thumb and could be seen saying, "That’s pine tar." He immediately ejected Pineda, who walked off the mound, dropped the ball and then proceeded into the dugout as the fans roared their approval.
A television camera followed Pineda into the tunnel, where he slumped sat down on an equipment chest and was approached by trainer Steve Donohue and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Manager Joe Girardi was seen pushing away the camera so it could not record the scene.
Girardi wore a stern expression because he had lost his starting pitcher with only two outs in the second inning and the Red Sox leading, 2-0.
"He made an error in judgment, and he’ll admit to that,” Girardi said.
Pineda said: "I apologize to my team and everybody. I learn from this mistake, and this won’t happen again."
He said he could not get a grip in the first inning and did not want to hurt anyone.
"We’re all embarrassed," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, adding, "that never should have happened."
Farrell indicated before Wednesday’s game that if Pineda were not so obvious, it would not be a problem.
"I would expect if it’s used, it’s more discreet than the last time," he said.
Usually, the purpose of the brown substance, or other similar products, is to gain a better grip on the baseball in cold conditions. It was 50 degrees at first pitch and quite blustery all night.
Pineda was replaced by David Phelps and a succession of relievers, but the game never seemed in doubt for the Red Sox and their starter John Lackey.
Pitchers are not allowed to put any foreign substance on the ball or anywhere on their person and are subject to ejection and suspension for violating the rule. In 2012 Joel Peralta of the Tampa Bay Rays was suspended for eight games after he was found to have pine tar in his glove. In 2005, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Brendan Donnelly was suspended for 10 games for the same infraction.
According to many current and former players, it is common for pitchers to use pine tar or some other substance in cold weather to help them grip the ball, despite the prohibition. Most claim it does not alter the flight of the ball. Some use a substance called Firm Grip or Bull Frog sunscreen. The consensus is that most pitchers use a foreign substance in cold weather.
On April 10, the brownish substance on the heel of Pineda’s right hand was captured on television. After the game the Red Sox indicated that Pineda should either give up the practice, or be subtle about it.
"It was obvious," outfielder Shane Victorino said the next day. "I don’t think it had anything to do with how he pitched. He’s a good pitcher. Yeah, I know pitchers want to have a better grip. But come on, be a little discreet."
Pineda was acquired by the Yankees in a trade from the Seattle Mariners in January 2012 but tore the labrum in his right shoulder in spring training and did not make his debut for the team until more than two years later, on April 5, at Toronto. He had been pitching well and carried a 2-1 record and 1.00 ERA into Wednesday’s start.
After that incident on April 10, he claimed it was dirt, and Girardi was at a loss to give an adequate alternative explanation. There was no evidence of a misdeed in Pineda’s next start against the Chicago Cubs on April 16 at the Stadium.
Nor was there evidence in the first inning Wednesday. But after he was rocked for two runs and five hits, Pineda came out in the second equipped with more than just a determination to do better.