TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Pineda has always had the stuff that baseball dreams are made of. (Forgive me, I watched "The Maltese Falcon" last night.)
But after tearing the labrum in his pitching shoulder during his first spring as a Yankee two years ago, it seemed as if he was one baseball dream that was unlikely to come true.
Until the past week, that is. Now, after seeing Pineda strike out Miguel Cabrera in a two-inning scoreless outing last Friday, and then watching him throw another 2-2/3 scoreless innings against the Baltimore Orioles today at Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees are daring to dream again.
“He’s taking steps in the right direction, and I want to see him continue to go in the right direction," Joe Girardi said after the Yankees completed a 6-0 win in one of two split-squad games (they lost the other 6-2 to the Phillies in Clearwater). "It would be important for us, I tell you that.”
That is the epitome of understatement. A healthy Pineda throwing anywhere near the way he did as a rookie for the Seattle Mariners in 2011 could be the key piece in a Yankee puzzle that is far from complete despite this winter's $438 million spending spree.
And judging by a minuscule sample -- just 4-2/3 innings of spring-training competition -- Pineda has been the best starter in a Yankees camp with a former Cy Young Award winner (CC Sabathia), a seven-year veteran with a 3.40 career ERA (Hiroki Kuroda) and a phenom who's coming off a 24-0 season in Japan (Masahiro Tanaka).
But none of them has shown what Pineda has shown so far. In those 4-2/3 innings, Pineda has allowed just four hits (one of the three he allowed today was an infield hit), no runs and just one walk. He has struck out nine of the 18 batters he has faced, including the fearsome Cabrera.
And perhaps most importantly, he continues to report no pain in that surgically repaired shoulder after suffering the type of injury a lot of pitchers never come back from.
"I want to be ready every five days, for pitching in the game," he said. "Every five days, Michael Pineda, I want to be ready. Be strong for pitching my game."
That doesn't sound much like the confused, almost timid kid who showed up at his first Yankees camp 20 pounds overweight, with an extremely limited grasp of English and perhaps even less understanding of what it took to succeed in this organization, for this team, before this fan base.
“I think he figured some things out," Girardi said, which is manager-speak for maturation, both physical and emotional. In the two years since he arrived here, Pineda has shown both.
"I think when you’re rehabbing and you’re sitting down here in Tampa and you’re not doing what you want to do, I think you have some time to think about some things," Girardi said. "And he was a young kid. Sometimes you can see the people that are pitching in the big leagues, you see the work that they put in and you can talk to some people, and I think he’s grown up some, definitely.”
To be sure, Pineda wasn't facing anything close to the real Orioles. There was no Crash Davis or Adam Jones or Matt Wieters or Nick Markakis in this lineup. Delmon Young was about the best bat in the lineup, and he nearly took Pineda's head off with a line drive in the second. Somehow, the 6-7 Pineda shot his left glove into the air and plucked the bullet out of the air, but the ball was smoked.
"Oh my goodness," Pineda said, rolling his eyes. "I just see like a little thing, and I say oh my goodness."
And the issue that heralded his shoulder injury, an alarming drop in his fastball velocity, hasn't been completely laid to rest just yet. Although Girardi said the Yankees' radar gun caught Pineda's fastball at 93 mph, the YES network gun measured him no faster than 92, and only twice in his 48-pitch outing. There were a lot more 89s and 90s, and, it seemed, at least as many breaking balls as fastballs.
But the breaking ball, particularly a slider that ranged from 77 to 81 mph, was Pineda's consistent out pitch. He struck Quintin Berry out with a beauty on a 3-2 count in the third, and had no fear of throwing it for strikes to any hitter on any count.
"You know you’re feeling comfortable when you throw a 3-2 slider for strikes, to punch guys out," said Brian McCann, who caught him today. "That there is a pretty good indication that he’s doing whatever he wants with the baseball. He’s got some natural cut on his pitches, and he's just an uncomfortable at-bat. You’re not sitting in there getting really good looks on him."
The Yankees, however, are taking a long, hard look at Pineda and so far, liking what they see. “It’s still pretty early in spring training, but we never saw that before,” Girardi said of the kind of pitching Pineda showed them today. "We didn’t see a whole lot the first year we had him. He was struggling. He wasn’t feeling great. We never saw what we saw in Seattle that whole first spring."
But the Yankees are seeing it now, and hoping it's not just another spring training mirage.
They're even daring to hope that Michael Pineda turns out to be a dream deferred, one that might yet come true.