KANSAS CITY -- The tantalizing talent within Michael Pineda's right arm continues to hold the Yankees' interest, and as they try to mount a postseason push, they have to be wondering if he can finally put it all together over the last four weeks of the regular season.
Pineda offered up another mixed bag on Monday night, stumbling in the first inning before retiring the next 15 hitters, striking out eight without a walk. The end result saw Pineda take his career-high 11th loss as the Yankees dropped an 8-5 decision to the Royals, with New York remaining 3 1/2 games behind Baltimore for an American League Wild Card spot.
Sitting in the visitors' dugout a couple of hours before first pitch, manager Joe Girardi said that it has been a challenge to make sense of Pineda's hot-and-cold performances.
"When he makes mistakes, they're hit, is probably the best way to say it," Girardi said. "We scratch our head sometimes. He'll go 5 2/3, strike out 11 guys and give up five runs. We scratch our head, but it just seems like when he makes mistakes, guys aren't missing it."
Pineda's splits have been most pronounced in the first inning, where he has surrendered 22 runs and compiled a swollen 7.62 ERA. The Royals quickly got to him with a combination of well-placed singles and steals, posting three runs on five hits while Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain swiped bags.
"I tried to do the best and make my best pitches, fighting on the mound," Pineda said. "This team has really good [speed]."
As ugly as the opening frame was -- Pineda and catcher Gary Sanchez seemed to struggle getting on the same page, though Pineda said that they stuck to their plan together -- Girardi and the Yankees were thrilled to see Pineda's command over the next five innings.
"He was able just to put hitters away," Girardi said. "He had a hard time the first inning doing it, and it looked like he might get out of it with one run, and then it turned into three. Gosh, he was really good after that."
Pineda didn't allow any traffic on the basepaths until Kendrys Morales opened the seventh with a single. He handed the ball off to the bullpen after permitting another hit to Salvador Perez.
Kansas City produced five runs in the seventh, highlighted by Alcides Escobar's three-run homer off Blake Parker, with two of those runs charged to Pineda -- not that the Yanks were surprised to be dealt a tough hand by the defending World Series champions.
"They're a really good team," Starlin Castro said. "They can do everything; they hit homers, they run the bases, they have a lot of guys that can run. We expect that. We played in New York against those guys and they played the same baseball."
The uncertainty, then, is in their own clubhouse. As the Yanks wonder if Pineda can be a difference-maker in the crowded Wild Card chase, it was difficult to see Monday as anything other than yet one more night of inconclusive results.
"It's unusual, because at times he's really, really good," Girardi said. "Then there are times when he leaves a ball up, or doesn't quite get it high enough, or doesn't quite get it low enough. They put it in play and they're base hits."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.