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Monday, September 5, 2011

With pitching prodigy Pineda, Mariners have reason to believe

Monday, September 5, 2011

SEATTLE ? The only thing growing faster than Michael Pineda is the legend surrounding the Seattle Mariners rookie pitcher.

  • Michael Pineda is 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA in seven starts this season.

    By Dan DeLong for USA TODAY

    Michael Pineda is 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA in seven starts this season.

By Dan DeLong for USA TODAY

Michael Pineda is 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA in seven starts this season.

He has the imposing look of CC Sabathia; the knock-you-off-the-plate demeanor of Pedro Martinez, Pineda's boyhood hero in the Dominican Republic; and nurturing from teammate and Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez.

And the 22-year-old has asserted himself immediately in the American League with a high-octane fastball, veteran-like composure and four April victories.

That all adds up to …

"Nasty," says Alex Avila, whose Detroit Tigers got four hits and struck out nine times in six innings in Pineda's fourth victory. "He was anywhere from 94 to 99 (mph) with the fastball. He has a slider … just a nasty, nasty guy."

The word that's catching on in Seattle is "diabolical," thanks to an audio clip of late Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus from a 2010 spring training game.

"A breaking ball, steee-rike at the knees," Niehaus bellowed the first time he saw Pineda in action. "A nasty, diabolical slider. Oww, that stank!"

The more Pineda pitches, the more the clip airs on pregame and postgame shows on the Mariners' flagship radio station. The Mariners are planning to begin scrolling "Diabolical" across the LED board at Safeco Field when Pineda registers another strikeout.

His off-field demeanor? Not so diabolical.

"He's like a teddy bear," says Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro, the man who should know best. Pineda is living with Navarro, who was his pitching coach in Appleton, Wis., when Pineda arrived in the USA three years ago as a 6-3, 180-pounder.

"It's easy for people to embrace him. He's always smiling."

Tell it to the hitters, who'd have a difficult time believing this 6-7, 260-pound hulk they're facing was ever that small or that friendly.

Pineda, who tries to conduct as many interviews as possible in English, describes his first major league month as "something very beautiful."

Pineda was the AL rookie of the month in April, when he was 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA, held opponents to a .198 batting average and became the fifth rookie to win four consecutive starts before the end of April.

He's 4-2 now, with a 2.84 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 441/3 innings. He has pitched at least six innings in all seven starts, and it wasn't until the sixth start that he allowed more than three runs.

The AL champion Texas Rangers beat him twice, scoring seven runs in 13 innings. The rest of the league: Seven earned runs in 311/3 innings.

"He can throw 100 mph and over the plate," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik says. "And he's big and strong. You have to step back and say, 'He's 22.' Where do you want to go from there?"

The temptation is to say the sky's the limit.

Asking questions, working hard

When Pineda reached his first major league spring training this year, the media guide listed him at 6-5, 245 pounds. But a Mariners media relations staffer noticed him nearly eye-to-eye with 6-8 pitcher Doug Fister.

Now, he's known as 6-7 Michael Pineda, his ceiling rising, it seems, with his height.

"He doesn't think about it," Navarro says, "but he can become one of the best pitchers in baseball."

Navarro, who pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues, wasn't nearly as effusive when the lanky teenager joined the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers three springs ago.

"He wasn't one you said, 'He's going to be a big thing,' " Navarro says. "He was a little bit nervous when he first got there. But he said, 'Jaime, I want to do good. I want to do better.' "

That was how Pineda, signed as a 16-year-old, believed he could become a major leaguer.

"I was a good player, not the best," says Pineda, a converted infielder. "I believed in myself. I thought I had a lot of talent, and I did a lot of hard work. I was a good person and could use that to help myself get better."

That remains his mantra.

He has immersed himself in the Rosetta Stone English lessons supplied by the Mariners. He was nearly as excited about passing his Washington driver's test — though he's still borrowing Navarro's car — on the first try as he was about any of those April victories.

"(Pitching) is the reason I'm here," he says. "The other stuff is important as well. That's going to help me with my life. I'm going to be here a long time."

Soaking up knowledge

Pineda plans to move into his own place soon — believing it will force him to improve his English — and a car probably won't be far behind.

For now, though, he's soaking up as much as he can:

•From Navarro at home: "I have the same kind of love and respect for him as I have for my own father," says Pineda, whose father, Juan Francisco Pineda, is a welder in the Dominican Republic.

•From Hernandez at work: "I've gained a lot of confidence from him. Coming into a new environment, to have that person, if I have a question, I can ask him. To have that person is important."

The formidable Hernandez-Pineda combination already has half of the team's 16 victories. Hernandez turned 25 in April. So it's obvious where the Mariners can find a foundation for climbing out of the AL West basement.

"That would be good," says Hernandez, who doesn't exactly endorse the long-term plan. "Me, I do my own thing. I've got three more years here (before he can be a free agent)."

Pineda has six years, and the Mariners have plenty of reasons to think his first month is an indicator of what's to come.

"My concern coming into spring training was: Is he only going to have one weapon?" pitching coach Carl Willis says. "Now, he has weapons, and he has confidence in them."

Pineda nearly rocketed to Seattle in 2010, when he went 8-1 with a 2.22 ERA at Class AA West Tenn (Jackson, Tenn.) before a midseason promotion to Class AAA Tacoma (Wash.).

Zduriencik opted against bringing him to the majors, citing Pineda's workload. The Mariners are monitoring his innings this year, too, not wanting a huge increase from last year's 139.

Zduriencik won't identify the target because he doesn't want Pineda thinking about it.

"He came into spring training, and it was obvious to all of us he should be on the ballclub," Zduriencik says. "I don't think any of us could have looked him in the eye and told him he didn't make the team."

Comparisons to Sabathia

Willis and Mariners manager Eric Wedge had the same jobs with the Cleveland Indians in 2003, when Sabathia was 22.

"Both are tremendous athletes," Willis says. "People don't realize that because they can't get past the size. That strength and athleticism allows them to learn and repeat their deliveries."

That leads to unusual control for such a young, hard-throwing pitcher. In his May 4 start against the Rangers, 77 of Pineda's 97 pitches were strikes.

Wedge and Navarro see further improvement when Pineda learns to stretch the strike zone and pitch inside more often. Pineda smiles at the suggestion inside pitches are part of his attraction to Martinez.

"Off the field, we're all friends, but once you hear, 'Play ball,' I don't see them as friends," he says.

He's quickly learning how many friends — or at least admirers — he has.

Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers) and David Ortiz (Boston Red Sox) have made a point of seeking him out to compliment him before games. Teammate Ichiro Suzuki mentioned his poise and polish, resulting in attention from Japanese news media covering the Mariners.

"I see a lot of players I grew up watching, and I get excited," he says. "I say, 'Wow,' to myself."

And then he takes a deep breath and works on his budding legacy.

Says Navarro: "He told me, 'I'll never forget where I came from. I just want to be Michael.' He knows how good he is. He's not afraid."

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