TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Pineda's command of the English language is not as good as his command of his slider, but the 6-foot-7, 25-year-old right-hander had no trouble making himself understood when expressing his emotions upon learning he had been named a member of the Yankees' starting rotation.
“I'm so happy, so happy today," Pineda said in the Yankees clubhouse shortly before the game against the Phillies on Tuesday night. "I feel as excited as I did when I was a rookie with Seattle in 2011, and I was so happy because I was playing in the major leagues. The same thing today. This is a big day for me."
It was impossible not to feel good for Pineda, even if the news came as no surprise to anyone, considering how well he threw the ball all spring. Because when you think back to two years ago, almost to the day, when Pineda walked off the mound here puzzled by his mysterious loss of velocity and alarmed by the pain in his right shoulder, the fact that he has come this far is accomplishment enough.
And having seen him not only control, but dominate hitters this spring with his collection of sliders and changeups, and the occasional low-90s fastball, it's hard not to imagine that somehow, the Yankees might still wind up with the pitcher they parted with Jesus Montero over in January 2012.
But that is a consideration for the future. Right now, the Michael Pineda story is a story of perseverance, not triumph yet. It is also the story of a phenomenally talented athlete who maybe took his talent for granted a little bit, and maybe didn't take his dedication all that seriously. Remember how he showed up for his first Yankees camp 20 pounds overweight, and how, while rehabbing here in Tampa, he got pulled over for a DUI.
But that was a younger, less mature Michael Pineda. The one who fought his way through a major shoulder reconstruction and committed himself to a long, often painful and always lonely rehab process is no longer a cocky kid. Now he's man who has brushed up against the specter of professional mortality and is all the better for it.
"I’m a young guy but I grew a lot, because I’m a better person right now," he said. "I learned a lot, you know? I learn [that] I’m a professional player and I need to focus on baseball every day. Here, in the Dominican, in the offseason, whatever, I have to continue my work every day and be ready all the time, you know?"
In other words, he learned that sometimes, natural talent is not enough, and that sometimes, there is a price to be paid. He just had never had to pay it before.
"It was hard because when you have an injury, you feel a little sad," Pineda said, hanging his head to illustrate his point of the despair he felt in the days following the injury. "I love pitching and I love to compete and I was sad, but everybody told me, 'Don’t worry, man, you’ll be OK, all you need is working hard every day and you be coming back.'"
Pineda said the hardest part was when the Yankees would come to Tampa to play the Rays, but instead of accompanying them to St. Petersburg, he had to remain behind at the minor league complex to face the daily drudgery of rehab.
"I want to be there with them," he said. "But I have to be here."
Now, thanks to a spring in which he threw 13 scoreless innings before allowing a run and struck out 16 batters while walking just one in 15 innings, Pineda will be with the real Yankees the next time they come to Tampa, not the Class A version. He will make his return to the major leagues on Saturday, April 5, against the Blue Jays in Toronto, nearly 1,000 days after the last time in pitched in the big leagues, on Sept. 21, 2011.
"I feel ready to go," Pineda said. "The only thing I think about on the mound is, make a good pitch and get an out. I'm not thinking nothing about my shoulder. I’m putting everything in the past. I want to continue my career and I want to be here for a long time."
Pineda isn't throwing 97 mph anymore, but Joe Girardi thinks he doesn't have to to be successful; this spring, his slider has looked that good. And the shoulder injury that looked as if it might derail a promising career is now being viewed by the Yankees as just a temporary setback on the road to what they hope will still be a long, productive big league career.
"I think in the back of your mind you always worry long-term about a guy that's had an injury like he's had, but short-term he looks great," Girardi said. "I'm not saying I expect him only to make it a month, two months. I'm expecting him to pitch the whole year for us."
When Pineda heard the news this afternoon, the first thing he did was reach for his phone. And like any good son, his first call was to his mother in the Dominican Republic.
"I knew she was waiting for me," Pineda said. "She’s so happy and she’s proud of me. She say, 'The only thing I tell you is continue your job and have a good season this year.'"
The Yankees couldn't have said it better themselves, in any language.