By Ernesto Onofre
22-year-old pitcher Michael Pineda took the American League by storm in April, his first month in the Major Leagues. The 6’7” right-hander was signed by the Mariners as a 16-year-old late in 2005, but didn’t make his full-season minor league debut until 2008. He rocketed through the minors, reaching Tacoma last June. It was expected that he’d start this season back at Triple-A, but against all odds he made the M’s opening day roster. It’s a good thing, because Pineda has been the most exciting thing about the 2011 Mariners in the early going. Pineda was 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA in his first four starts, becoming just the second rookie in Mariners history to win three games in the month of April.
GRAND SALAMI: Tell us what your thoughts were about making the opening day roster. You had a great spring and seemed determined to start the season in the Majors.
MICHAEL PINEDA: My goal was to go to spring training and work hard like I’ve always done and hopefully land a spot in the starting rotation.
GS: You’ve had a chance to spend a lot of time with Felix Hernandez this year. What has that been like for you?
PINEDA: I feel that pitching alongside him I’m going to be able to develop a lot, because he’s a tremendous pitcher. He’s also a really good person and he’s given me a lot of useful advice.
GS: What kind of advice?
PINEDA: He’s talked to me about how you battle on the mound, and explained not to worry too much about things, because the opportunities will come to you. The most important thing he told me during spring training was “Don’t worry, just do your job wherever they want you, trust in God and someday you’ll get the opportunity. And when you do, be ready to take advantage of it.” That’s helped me a lot.
GS: You threw over 140 innings in the minors last year, the most of your career. How did you feel when the season was over?
PINEDA: I still felt strong. My goal this year is to throw 200 innings or more and finish the season strong. I know that to accomplish that I have to work hard and always stay healthy and stay in great condition.
GS: Did it make any difference to you that your first big league start came on the road?
PINEDA: It didn’t matter whether it was at home or on the road. I just wanted to pitch in the big leagues.
GS: In that first Major League game you faced a tough hitting Texas ballclub and you managed to keep Nelson Cruz and the rest of the Rangers in the ballpark.
PINEDA: Yeah, I had to work, and I kept the ball down, attacking him (Cruz) and threw all my pitches for strikes.
GS: How is it that you have such great command of your pitches at such a young age?
PINEDA: Well, it all comes from working hard.
GS: What areas have you been working on most to improve?
PINEDA: The slider and the changeup. I think if I perfect my changeup a little more, I can have tremendous success in the big leagues.
GS: What were your impressions of your first Opening Night at Safeco Field? That must have been an incredible feeling running down the red carpet to great applause from the sold out crowd.
PINEDA: Wow! I had no idea what it would be like. When it was my turn to run out there, I looked up and thanked God for the opportunity. It was something really beautiful. Then when I was running down the carpet, and heard everybody applauding I felt like, “Oh Wow!” The fans applauded so loud—it seems like they love me already! I’ve only been here a short time.
GS: Tell us about working with catcher Miguel Olivo.
PINEDA: It’s great working with him. I learned a few things that first night in Texas. Three times he asked for a certain pitch and I shook him off because I didn’t want to throw it. I wanted to throw something else. But he kept insisting and telling me, “Throw it, Throw it!” So I went ahead and threw it and he was right. He was absolutely right every time. And everything worked out OK. He knows a lot, he’s got a lot of experience, he’s very intelligent, and he knows all the batters.
GS: What was it like for you getting your first Major League victory (against Toronto on April 12th) and a beer shower in your first start at Safeco Field?
PINEDA: I was very excited to do so well my first game before the home crowd. I think I can learn from that game and finish stronger. I always want to finish well. I felt really strong inning by inning and I was excited the whole time.
GS: There was a point in that game against Toronto where you and Olivo got crossed up, wasn’t there?
PINEDA: There was a little confusion with the signs. I was looking for a ground ball for the double play but I couldn’t get it, and lost the batter to a walk. So I had a runner on second base and I was being careful because I didn’t want them to see the sign and then we just got crossed up. The double play that Smoak made was tremendous, and I was really confident that (Brandon) League could finish it off in the ninth.
GS: Who did you dedicate your first win to?
PINEDA: I dedicated my first win to my mother, the person I love most in the world. Every day I’m working to help her and give her a better future, one that she deserves.
GS: You’ve thrown a high percentage of first pitch strikes in your first few Major League starts. How crucial is getting ahead with a first pitch strike?
PINEDA: It’s really important. When the pitcher can get ahead with a strike, then the batter is more defensive and then you’re able to attack much quicker and not give them a chance.
GS: Any particular hitters you’re looking forward to facing this year?
PINEDA: Oh man, I’d be so proud to be able to pitch to Alex Rodriguez. Whatever happens, I would feel proud to face him. He’s a great player and it would be so special for me!
GS: It’s an old adage that it’s easier to get to the Majors than it is to stay there. What do you think you have to do to stick around?
PINEDA: That’s really true. I believe one of the things I have to try to accomplish, aside from working hard, is to perfect my English, more and more each day. It’s OK, but I want to get better. And I want to be able to have all I need to live in this country comfortably, like a driver’s license. I don’t have one and I’m studying the book now, but I don’t have a lot of free time. I live in an apartment complex with (bullpen coach) Jaime Navarro and he drives me to and from the park, gives me rides. One day soon I’m going to take the test and get my license.
GS: What kind of car are you going to buy?
PINEDA: (laughs) I really don’t know yet. Right now I don’t have any dream car.
GS: Mariners Director of Minor League Operations Pedro Grifol says that playoff game experience in the minors helps prepare young players for the Major Leagues. You’ve had that experience in the minors; how has it helped you?
PINEDA: It’s great experience when you’re in playoff games, important games, because you learn how to play in front of big crowds, you learn how to deal with the pressure and how to calm your nerves. So when you get to play in front of big crowds in the big leagues, you’ll be ready. When the moment arrives that you get to the big leagues, you’re more relaxed because you’ve had that experience on a smaller scale. I love pitching in games where there are lots of fans so that they can watch me, and then I feel proud of myself. I go out there and feel like I’m just going to enjoy my game, I’m really going to enjoy my game.
GS: You pitched for Tacoma in the PCL playoffs last year, but you also had the experience of being the losing pitcher in the 2009 California League Championship game, pitching for High Desert. What can you learn from losing?
PINEDA: You can focus on the mistakes you made in the game and figure out how to improve so when the situation comes up again, you’ll be better. Losing makes you focus more on perfecting your game.
GS: Speaking of perfection, you came about as close as you can come to pitching a perfect game back in 2008 when you were pitching for Class A Wisconsin. And the perfect game got broken up by an umpire’s call, similar to what happened to Armando Gallaraga of the Tigers last year.
PINEDA: That’s right! There were two outs in the seventh and the umpire made a call. I knew I was throwing a perfect game and when the umpire made his decision, I was like, “Wow,” and I stopped and thought about it and decided that if nothing else, that I was going finish the game and go all nine innings. And yes, I finished the game, struck out 14 batters that game, and that one runner was the only who reached base. It was the best game I’ve ever pitched.
GS: You’re part of a new generation of young Dominican pitchers; of the pitchers who came before you, who did you admire?
PINEDA: Of the older generation, Pedro “El Grande” Martínez is my all-time favorite. But I also liked Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens. And my favorite team was Boston, of course, because of Pedro, Manny, Ortiz—all my people were there!
GS: What did you admire about Pedro?
PINEDA: I admired his presence on the mound. He was calm, but at the same time … I don’t know how to explain it … he was patient, but with ice water in his veins. He always dominated and attacked the zone. He was small, but accomplished so much and that’s why they called him “El Grande.” I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to him, but I’m hoping to someday.
GS: You’ve been signed for several years with the Licey Tigers (winners of 10 Caribbean World Series) in the Dominican Winter League. Did you pitch for them this past off-season?
PINEDA: I’ve been with them since 2008, but the Mariners didn’t want me to play last winter. So instead I had a great time spending the off-season with my family in Yaguate (San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic). I’m the oldest, and biggest (laughs). I have two younger brothers and a sister. One of my brothers is 17 and plays baseball, but he hasn’t been signed by a Major League team yet.
GS: Finally, let’s talk about some favorites. What’s your favorite sport other than baseball?
GS: Favorite colors?
PINEDA: Red and white.
GS: Favorite music?
GS: Favorite food?
PINEDA: Any kind of Dominican food.
GS: Do you have an iPad?
PINEDA: Yes, but I gave mine to my little brother and I have to get another one.
GS: Who’s the funniest guy on the team?
PINEDA: Oh, that has to be Felix! He cracks us up all the time.