Monday, March 15, 2010
Pineiro renews promise
By Mark Saxon
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Joel Pineiro once had a view of a future that seemed limitless.
It was August 2001 and Pineiro was pitching devastating relief for a Seattle Mariners team that was chewing up the rest of the American League. He was the baby-faced kid, just 22, in a room filled with veterans like Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Jamie Moyer. Pineiro's stuff was electric and hitters were reacting to it as if it were lethal.
He retired 51 straight right-handed batters at one point, the longest stretch of its kind in the majors in 16 years.
The Los Angeles Angels would see a similar act from Francisco Rodriguez at the end of 2002, one of those rare moments when even seasoned baseball people wonder whether something entirely new has arrived.
Mike Scioscia recalls Pineiro having "as good a fastball/breaking ball combination as we saw in our league."
The man who gave Pineiro his first major league opportunity at the tender age of 21 recalls it in his usual understated, world-weary style.
"When I had him, he was more of a power pitcher with a big, old curveball," Lou Piniella recalled. "Now, he's a little different type pitcher."
From that brink of possibility, Pineiro recalls the long fall that followed. He entered the Mariners' rotation and had promising seasons in 2002 and 2003. He piled up 30 wins and struck out an average of 144 guys a year.
The next year, Pineiro felt a twinge in his right elbow. It was the first crack in the hubris of youth.
"I didn't think it was easy, but I thought, 'If I'm doing this now, why can't I do it three, four, five, six years later?' You learn," Pineiro said. "I injured my arm and a lot of things go through your head. Too many things run through your head."
That was the beginning of a downward spiral that would have flushed a lot of pitchers out of the game. Pineiro missed nearly half the 2004 season and the first few weeks of 2005. When he did get back on a mound that April, he recalls, "It just wasn't the same."
It took Pineiro more than three years to get another taste of consistent success. The Mariners sent him down, then shuffled him off to the bullpen. By the end of 2006, they had run out of patience. They granted him free agency. The Boston Red Sox picked him to pitch in relief the following year, but his ERA topped 5.00 for the eventual World Series champs.
Finally, the Red Sox traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals along with cash for a minor leaguer named Sean Danielson.
It would take another year for the conversation that resurrected a career. At the end of the 2008 season, Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan sidled up to him and wondered why he wasn't throwing his two-seam fastball more frequently. It had late, downward movement, the type that can cause hitters to pound it into the turf all day, the type that can prolong pitchers' careers.
A 94-mph fastball and a devastating breaking ball had trained Pineiro to believe he could blow the ball by hitters when he was young. What Duncan was asking was a leap of faith. Pineiro had to train himself to let them hit it. It's not as easy as it sounds.
"First off, it's always been a philosophy in pitching," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "It's getting a guy to believe that you can truly trust pitching to contact that's the tough part."
Duncan may have planted the seed, but Pineiro was either desperate enough or smart enough to nurse it. He began throwing the sinker nearly every pitch. Results followed. He won 15 games last year, posted a 3.49 ERA with a repertoire that is short on dazzle and long on dribblers. It earned him a nice payday, a two-year, $16 million deal with the Angels.
"That's wisdom," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. "He's not trying to strike everybody out. He's a lot more mature than when I first saw him come up in the league. I wouldn't feel comfortable facing someone like that, who hits his spots. Guys who try to overpower you make mistakes."
Now, the Angels have to find out if Pineiro can repeat that success in a league with far more powerful offenses. Piniella thinks he's got a fighting chance.
"He's a very competitive young man and he'll battle the heck out of you," Piniella said.
Maybe it's the thin air in Arizona, but Pineiro has struggled early in the spring. In five innings, he has a 9.00 ERA and has allowed 10 hits. The ground balls he relies on have been scarce. But with four other accomplished starters, the Angels don't need Pineiro to push his way to the front of the rotation. They need consistency and innings at the back end, something a sinkerball pitcher should provide.
Scioscia saw it in his playing days with Orel Hershiser, Jerry Reuss and Fernando Valenzuela, guys who extended their careers by adapting to diminished stuff. He's hopeful he's seeing it with Pineiro.
"Their stuff maybe started to shrink a little bit, but their production increased," Scioscia said.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.