BALTIMORE -- The question was perfectly legitimate, if a bit abrupt -- "Will you continue to use pine tar?" -- and when a reporter asked it of him in the Yankees' clubhouse before Monday night's game with the Orioles, it seemed to hit Michael Pineda like a cold slap in the face.
He literally recoiled from the words before fixing his questioner with a stare and answering in a single word: "No."
It is admirable to think Pineda has learned his lesson, although to be fair, he said the same thing when he was suspected of using pine tar in a game against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on April 10, 13 days before he got tossed, and suspended, for using it again, obviously and clumsily, in a game at Fenway Park.
At the time, Pineda said he used it to help him grip the ball in the April cold, which no doubt a lot of big-league pitchers do, and certainly with more finesse than Pineda did in the two games in which he was caught by TV cameras loading up the baseball.
But now, as he prepares to return to the mound for the first time in nearly four months -- he will pitch against the Orioles on Wednesday night at Camden Yards, with Shane Greene, who was scheduled to pitch Tuesday night's rainout, starting Saturday in Tampa -- the question must be asked: Was Pineda's early-season effectiveness solely due to his own ability, or did he need a little help?
Certainly, Pineda was a dominant pitcher for the Seattle Mariners in 2011, before the shoulder injury suffered in 2012 spring training with the Yankees that cost him two years out of his major league life.
And since he came back, despite suffering a loss in velocity, he was at times still dominant, displaying a swing-and-miss slider that took the place of his fastball, which once flirted with triple digits.
Pineda was a revelation in training camp, the runaway winner of the Yankees' four-man competition for the No. 5 starter's job, and along with Masahiro Tanaka easily among the two best pitchers in their starting rotation for the first month of the season.
But then came the revelation, the suspension, and the lat muscle injury that kept him on the shelf for more than half the season.
Now, as he prepares to return to action, is it fair to wonder if he will be the same pitcher in August as he had been in April?
New York Yankees
Pineda clearly didn't like the question about whether he will return to the pine tar rag when he returns to the mound, and when asked about the incident that cost him 10 days in April, tends to respond with a canned answer about learning from his mistakes, and apologizing to everyone, and wanting to put it all behind him.
But it is only natural to wonder if the pine tar was truly helping the movement on his pitches -- clearly, there's a reason pitchers use it -- and perhaps as important, whether Pineda believes he needs it to pitch effectively.
A lot of eyes will be on him, for a lot of reasons, when he takes the mound, and unless he's completely crazy, you can bet he's going to pitch clean. The question is, will he able to?
This is not a moral issue -- believe me, I think the prohibition on pine tar for pitchers, especially in cold weather, is stupid and archaic, unless, of course, it can be proven that it imparts a clear advantage over the hitters -- but more of a practical one.
The Yankees are in deep trouble here, seven games behind the Orioles, three out of the second wild-card spot, with just 44 games left. Their main problem, of course, is an appalling lack of hitting, but adding a lockdown starting pitcher can certainly help.
Off what he showed in the first month of the season, Pineda is certainly capable of being that kind of pitcher.
But does he need help to do it?
Understandably, Pineda may not like being asked that question.
But realistically, it is one that needs to be asked, and ultimately, answered.