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Yankees' Michael Pineda has found his comfort zone; will he blossom?

TAMPA, Fla. -- Sitting on a stool in front of his locker, Michael Pineda mimics how he reacted four springs ago when reporters approached him.

The giant, 6-foot-7 righty's eyes bulge, appearing as scared as a child watching a horror movie for the first time. He lifts himself from his chair in simulated fright. Then, he plops back down -- letting out a big belly laugh.

Pineda can smile now remembering how he felt when he arrived in February 2012, the prize pitcher exchanged for catcher Jesus Montero. Yankees fans, after years of hype and a strong September, were envisioning Monument Park for Montero, so the spotlight fell on Pineda. Out of shape and not ready for the season, Pineda's shoulder broke down, costing him two seasons.

Four years removed from the surgery, Pineda lets out that belly laugh when he thinks back to his timidity at being surrounded by more than a dozen reporters asking questions on topics as mundane as a bullpen session in a language foreign to him.

Now, with his English improved and a familiarity with the Yankee way, Pineda, a Dominican, is much more comfortable in his surroundings. This may or may not lead to more success, but it can't hurt.

Pineda, still just 27, disappointed last year, going 12-10 with a 4.37 ERA in 160 2/3 innings. Before the season, some -- OK, me -- thought Pineda might be the best starter in New York.

He ended up being the fourth best starter on the Yankees, behind Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino and Nathan Eovaldi. Still, the expectations remain because of that fastball, slider and curveball combination.

"I think he can be a one," catcher Brian McCann said. "He has three quality pitches at a crazy, tough angle. When he is on, he is tough."

The transition to the majors for any foreign player can be difficult. Imagine going to a country where you barely speak the language and then being asked to compete at the highest level. On top of that, you're faced with constant questions about every little thing you did. It doesn't sound easy, does it?

The fact of the matter, as Pineda's locker room neighbor, Ivan Nova, a fellow Dominican, explained, is that to better handle your surroundings you have to learn English. To do that, you have to speak often.

"Every year you see the same faces and it is easier to talk to the same person," said Nova, who could teach a course in making the transition. "If you don't talk, you won't get better. Sometimes you don't know the exact word."

Pineda has insisted on speaking English to the media, even when he had the pine tar incident in Boston. The exchange with reporters asking tough questions about the situation and Pineda being unable to fully answer was awkward for everyone involved.

Pineda looks a little bigger this camp than the last two springs. He said he weighs the same. Either way, he looked strong running up the new hill installed in left field on practice field three.

What is apparent is Pineda is in a better frame of mind, more at ease in the Yankee clubhouse.

"I think he is relaxed," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think he knows the staff. I think he knows the players in the clubhouse. Obviously, he has a group that he is probably closer to. There is a lot of laughter."