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Michael Pineda strikes out 16, emerging as Yankees' ace

NEW YORK -- Through 32 games, the New York Yankees are a pleasant surprise, and Michael Pineda might be the most pleasant surprise in all of baseball.

The 26-year-old right-hander struck out 16 batters Sunday afternoon, flirting with history in the Yankees' 6-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles.

Pineda reached that gaudy number in only seven innings of work. He could have had more, but manager Joe Girardi played it safe, considering Pineda had already thrown a career-high 111 pitches.

"Because of the time of year it is, how young he is, and how important he is to us the rest of the season," Girardi said, explaining his decision. "And you gotta remember, Michael's coming off a pretty serious injury. What he had is not something that's not in the back of my mind in managing him throughout the course of a season. If he doesn't have that injury, maybe it's a different story."

Pineda had surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder in 2012, and missed all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He returned at the start of 2014, was suspended for using pine tar, was injured again, and then pitched pretty well in August and September. No one was quite sure what to expect in 2015.

What we've seen is dominance. Through seven starts, Pineda is 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA, 54 strikeouts and only three walks. He and former Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez are the only two pitchers with five wins in the American League.

Catcher Brian McCann called Pineda's stuff on Sunday "electric," but added that it's been that way all season long.

"He doesn't walk many guys, he pounds the zone, and the movement he gets on his pitches, he's able to create pitches that you don't get to see every night," McCann said. "You can't duplicate a guy that's 6-[foot]-8 throwing cutters and a slider like that, and then a great changeup."

Pineda had all those pitches working Sunday, plus a fastball hovering at 93 mph with late movement. He had at least two strikeouts in every inning he pitched, and struck out the side in the fifth. He gave up six hits, but did not walk a batter. The only blemish was a J.J. Hardy solo homer.

He caught Manny Machado looking at a slider to lead off the first inning, and got Ryan Flaherty swinging at a slider to finish off the seventh.

"That's as good as we've seen," Girardi said. "God, he was really good."

The Yankees expected good things when they acquired Pineda from the Mariners in 2012 -- after all they shipped their top prospect at the time, catcher Jesus Montero, to Seattle in return.

For a while, it looked like a bust for both sides. But my, how things have changed. Montero is currently employed by the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, while Pineda is a budding ace in the Bronx.

He's come a long way from his rookie season of 2011, when he went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA for the Mariners.

"He had the good fastball and he had the good slider," Girardi said. "But I would say he's better [now] because I think he's become more consistent in throwing strikes, and he's developed a changeup."

And he's also had time to mature -- after all, he was just 22 years old when he made his major league debut.

"I had my surgery in 2012, and I've really worked to come back and pitch," Pineda said. "All pitchers, they wanna do a good job on the mound. I'm throwing the ball really good right now, and I wanna keep it that way and keep working hard."

Pineda, who hails from the Dominican Republic, speaks limited English. But his broad smile -- as electric as the stuff he had on the mound Sunday -- spoke volumes.

"I don't know how to explain to you how happy I am right now," Pineda said. "But I'm very happy."

He should be. He came within two strikeouts of matching Ron Guidry's 18-strikeout performance on June 17, 1978, against the California Angels, the best in Yankees history. And he matched David Cone's and David Wells' 16-strikeout games, both in 1997, the second best in the franchise's past.

Those are three pretty good names to be associated with.

The Yankees should be very happy, too. Saddled with meager expectations for the first time in a long time this spring, they're now 20-12 -- tops in the American League East by a three-game margin.

And they've got a young pitcher who appears to be a rising star.