Pineda confident as spring progresses
TAMPA, Fla. -- Three years ago, Scott Sizemore and his Athletics teammates gathered for a hitters' meeting on the morning of July 4. The reports warned them that they'd be seeing a right-hander with terrific fastball velocity and a devastating slider that could snap off at will.
That pregame intelligence didn't help much. Then wearing a Mariners uniform, Michael Pineda enjoyed his afternoon in Oakland, striking out seven to log his eighth big league win.
And if the impressions from a simulated game on Sunday are to believed, Pineda may finally be returning to that 2011 form.
"It's been a couple of years since I saw him, but today the ball was popping out of his hand," said Sizemore, now in camp with the Yanks, who grabbed a bat to face Pineda on a diamond behind George M. Steinbrenner Field. "As a right-handed hitter, it kind of comes out from behind your head, so it's tough to feel comfortable in the box."
Standing at his locker after the session, Pineda laughed loudly and grinned widely, clearly pleased with his progress. He threw the equivalent of two innings to Sizemore and Zoilo Almonte, and though he has yet to throw a regular-season pitch as a Yankee, he is confident he'll be tossing plenty in 2014.
"I want to be on the Yankees right away," Pineda said. "I don't want to go to Triple-A. But I don't have control of the situation, you know? I want to be ready to go."
Pineda will have his first opportunity to state his case for the rotation on Friday, as he is scheduled to make his spring debut in relief against the Tigers. He is expected to throw three innings behind Hiroki Kuroda, who is starting the 7:05 p.m. ET contest at Steinbrenner Field.
"[Pineda's] been great," said manager Joe Girardi, who watched Sunday's session from behind the mound. "Everything we've asked him to do, he's been right on."
The Yankees did not have a radar gun set up, but Sizemore estimated that Pineda's fastball was coming in the low to mid-90s. Pineda was most pleased with his control, including a hard inside fastball that shattered Almonte's bat.
"It cut a little bit," catcher Peter O'Brien said. "Every time I caught him, I was telling one of the other guys, 'It looks like he's turned it up a notch every single time.' It's going to be fun once he gets into games."
O'Brien caught Pineda a little bit last season at the Yankees' Minor League complex, giving him some perspective to rate the progress of Pineda's fastball, slider and changeup.
"You could tell he had good stuff, but it's nothing compared to now," O'Brien said. "He just looks so much smoother and so much more comfortable out there. He's just going out there and going after guys."
There were no hard-hit balls in the sim game, and Sizemore said that Pineda's 6-foot-7 stature and arm slot still make it tough for a right-handed hitter to have a comfortable at-bat.
"It's coming from behind you, and you just have a tendency to kind of open up a little bit," Sizemore said. "It's hard to stay in there and really try to stay through the ball."
Girardi said that the version of Pineda he saw on Sunday is much closer to the All-Star talent that the Yankees thought they were acquiring from the Mariners in January 2012, when they dealt top prospect Jesus Montero to the Mariners in a four-player deal.
"I can tell you, his stuff's a lot closer than it was to when we got him ... a couple of years ago," Girardi said.
Pineda went to Spring Training 2012 out of shape, acknowledging that he weighed 280 pounds and needed to drop at least 10. His velocity never looked quite right, and by late April he had been diagnosed with an anterior labral tear, an injury that required surgery.
"It just wasn't coming out like we saw during the middle of the  season," Girardi said. "For a power guy, early on in Spring Training, you're not too worried about it, because it takes time. But it just never increased much."
At the time, general manager Brian Cashman said he was "devastated" by the news and called it a "tragic diagnosis." But there is a history of pitchers recovering from similar injuries: Chris Carpenter, Curt Schilling and Ted Lilly represent some of the best-case scenarios.
"I want to pitch in the game and see what happens," Pineda said. "Right now I'm feeling good."
The Yankees thought that Pineda might have been ready to help at the tail end of last season, promoting him as high as Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he went 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in six starts.
Though he finished the season healthy, he did not appear at Triple-A after Aug. 2. He revealed on Sunday that he had been feeling "a little tight" while tossing at the Yanks' complex in September, but that no longer seems to be an issue.
Now, one year and 10 months removed from surgery. he finally feels prepared to return to game action.
"I'm so excited. It was a long time ago," he said. "I've been practicing, working hard, so now I feel ready to go. I feel very excited about it."