Michael Pineda was crafting quite the comeback story in his return following Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. He had become the Twins’ most reliable starter, the rock of a rotation that has had up-and-down moments this season. He seemed to be a lock to get a start in a postseason series should the Twins clinch the AL Central title.
But Big Mike has made a big mistake.
Major League Baseball on Saturday announced the 6-7, 280-pound Dominican was suspended 60 games for violating its drug policy. It ends his 2019 season, knocks him out of any postseason games this October and — since he’s in the final year of a two-year, $10 million deal — possibly ends his Twins career.
For a team that has been nicked by injuries in recent weeks, the news landed like a well-placed haymaker.
“I just woke up and found out,” said Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who missed Saturday’s game because of a sore left wrist. “Definitely something where we’re all really sad because he’s such a big part of the team. He’s been our best pitcher in the second half. Definitely a big loss for us.”
Pineda tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic. It’s taken to treat high blood pressure as well as by those looking to lose weight. But it’s also on MLB’s list of banned substances because of its use to mask the presence of other illegal drugs.
The original suspension was for 80 games. Pineda appealed and was able to convince an arbitrator that he used the substance in an attempt to lose weight, not mask drug use. He will miss the final 21 games of this season and the first 39 games of 2020 with whatever team he plays for.
After apologizing to the Twins and fans for his error in judgment, Pineda, in a statement released by the player’s union, said: “I mistakenly took a medication that was given to me by a close acquaintance who obtained it over-the-counter and assured me it would safely help me manage my weight. I ingested a few of these pills without the consent of the Twins’ training staff.”
While Pineda was able to make a convincing argument regarding his intentions, the suspension leaves the Twins with a big hole in their starting rotation — as well as teammates forced to react to his poor judgment.
“I’m at a loss for words. It’s hard to believe,” reliever Sergio Romo said. “I really don’t have much to say about that. It’s something that … I can’t even think of anything, to be honest. It does leave you speechless. It’s a guy who has been a key contributor to why we’re in the position we’re in.”
The process of being informed of a positive test, appealing the results and then receiving the arbitrator’s decision can take around 30-45 days, meaning Pineda might have been informed before the July 31 trade deadline that he tested positive. The team, however, is the last to know. The Twins were not informed Pineda had failed a test until early Friday evening. So a handful of Twins officials knew Friday that Pineda was making his last start of 2019.
Pineda is the third Twins player in recent years to fail a drug test. Righthander Ervin Santana tested positive for stanozolol during spring training in 2015, missing the first 80 regular-season games. And last spring training, shortstop Jorge Polanco tested postitive for stanozolol as well, also receiving an 80-game suspension. Outfielder Eddie Rosario served a 50-game suspension as a minor leaguer in 2014 for a drug of abuse, as did righthander Anthony Swarzak in 2007.
Pineda, who gave up one run in six innings vs. Cleveland on Friday, striking out 10, finishes his season 11-5 with a 4.01 ERA. Over his past 14 outings, he posted a 2.96 ERA. In 146 innings, he walked 28 batters and struck out 140.
With Kyle Gibson on the injured list because of ulcerative colitis, the Twins are down two spots in their rotation right while they are in the middle of a stretch in which they face second-place Cleveland six times in 10 days. But manager Rocco Baldelli expressed hope that Gibson could pitch Wednesday or Thursday against Washington.
“I don’t see it as filling multiple spots in the rotation with other names right now,” Baldelli said. “Obviously we were in the bullpen day the other day [Tuesday in Boston]. There’s a chance we may do that other times moving forward. I don’t, at least right now, I don’t foresee two spots in the rotation being filled like that.”
What the Twins will attempt to do is move forward. But that’s a challenge with Byron Buxton (left shoulder) and Marwin Gonzalez (abdominal strain) sidelined by injury. Cruz was out of the lineup Saturday because of a sore left wrist. So was outfielder Jake Cave, who suffered a mild left groin strain Friday.
Several players are banged up. And one of them — Pineda — simply isn’t coming back.
“Well, it’s like an injury,” Cruz, who served a 50-game suspension in 2013 as one of 14 players linked to the Biogenesis drug scandal, said of missing Pineda. “We’re missing Buxton. We’ve missed myself a few times. We try to see it that way. When you see yourself going through this, it either can put you down pretty bad or you can step up. I think somebody has to step up for him.”