Five alive for Michael Pineda

Right now, it seems the fifth starter's job is Michael Pineda's to lose. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Pineda can no longer win the Yankees' No. 5 starter's job. He can only lose it.

After his performance Tuesday, holding a pseudo-Red Sox squad to four hits and no runs, striking out five in 4 1/3 innings, there is no longer any reason to ask Joe Girardi what the 25-year-old right-hander needs to do to win the spot. The question is, what can anyone else do to take it away from him?

Concerns about his fastball velocity, which were legitimate when his heater was loitering at 89 mph as he headed toward major shoulder surgery, seem silly now, even if he never regains the kind of smoke he was blowing for Seattle, when his two-seamer averaged 96.7 mph, according to fangraphs.com.

Because when a pitcher can bury a slider at 85 mph the way Pineda did consistently during Tuesday's 8-1 win over Boston at The Boss, it really doesn't matter if the fastball moseys in at a comparatively leisurely 90-92.

Pineda got all five of his strikeouts on sliders that started around the waistline and ended at the shoe tops. And he didn't get them at the expense of the Triple-A kids who filled out the bottom of John Farrell's lineup card; Jonny Gomes was a two-time victim, and Mike Carp, Xander Bogaerts and David Ross went down once each.

True, there was no Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz or Mike Napoli to be dealt with, but a pitcher can only mow down the hitters put in front of him.

That Pineda did, with efficiency. He reached his pitch limit of 60 with one out in the fifth, and his delivery looked much tidier than it did five days ago, when his stuff was good but he seemed on the verge of coming apart at times in 2 2/3 innings against the Orioles.

Through nine innings this spring, Pineda has yet to allow a run. He has given up eight hits, walked just one and struck out 14.

By contrast, his competitors for the final spot -- David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno -- have ERAs of 2.63, 2.08 and 1.50, respectively. All good, but none of them has the kind of stuff, or potential upside, that Pineda has.

"If he's healthy, if he's the guy we traded for a couple of years ago, he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter," Mark Teixeira said. "And those guys don’t come around easily. You got to really develop those kind of guys. He’s still young, and he still has a bright future if he’s healthy."

Francisco Cervelli, who caught Pineda in a game for the first time, called him "aggressive with every pitch. His slider is amazing. The ball was cutting really good. The fastball has some life, so it’s going to help a lot. And the changeup is great; he throws it right on the plate.”

Still, Girardi was reluctant to confirm what has been obvious over Pineda's past three outings, possibly because he still needs to see if Pineda's rebuilt shoulder can carry a game into the sixth or seventh inning.

"You'd like to see him stretched out a little bit more," Girardi said. "The other guys are throwing pretty well too. We've got to figure out what's best for our team as a whole."

But the manager acknowledged, "He doesn't look like a guy who's coming back from a serious injury."

Pineda said he feels as if his shoulder is getting stronger with each outing and doesn't rule out the possibility that his fastball might someday touch 96 again.

“I feel like the same Michael Pineda," he said. "I have the same mechanics; my mechanics are now a little better. My arm is feeling good, and I’m working for getting my old velocity back. My shoulder is good, so the velocity is coming.”

Pineda likely has two starts remaining this spring, as do Phelps and Nuno; Warren seems to have been relegated to coming into the second part of games started by someone else. Maybe one of them can show something that will convince Girardi he is better suited to start every five days for the Yankees.

But that just doesn't seem likely. Pineda seems to have seized control of the No. 5 starter's job, and right now, only he can give it back.