Young Pineda hard to miss among stellar M’s staff

Seattle Mariners rookie starting pitcher Michael Pineda is 6-2 with a 2.16 earned run average through nine starts. (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners rookie starting pitcher Michael Pineda is 6-2 with a 2.16 earned run average through nine starts. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Even Felix Hernandez realized the oddity of the word he used to reference Michael Pineda, an anxious, excitable 6-foot-7 Dominican who sometimes makes the radar gun flash with readings higher than what the reigning American League Cy Young winner throws.

“He listens and he learns. He’s a good kid,” Hernandez said of his Seattle teammate.

After a pause, Hernandez added, “Well, he’s 22 and I’m 25.”

And it’s that last part which could be a scary proposition for the rest of the A.L. West.

Maybe Seattle’s “King” now has a “Prince” in tow.

At least for the first two months of his professional career, Pineda is dominating in a way even Hernandez didn’t when he made his major league debut – although Hernandez was 19 at the time.

Through nine starts, Seattle’s young righty is 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA. He leads all rookies in wins, ERA and strikeouts (61), but it’s not just the rookies he’s topping. Pineda is also among the leaders in all baseball in those categories.

In his last two starts, Pineda has thrown 14 scoreless innings, allowed five hits and struck out 16.

And to think, there was a debate during spring training about whether Pineda needed more time in the minors before making his major league debut.

Now Pineda gets one of the biggest stages around for the 10th start of his career: tonight when the New York Yankees open a three-game series in Seattle. The Yankees are among the best-known teams in the Dominican Republic, where Pineda grew up.

“I’m excited for pitching (against) the Yankees,” said Pineda, who is still learning English but attempts to do most of his interviews with little or no help from an interpreter.

What Pineda is accomplishing is part of an amazing run by Seattle’s starting rotation. Led by Hernandez and Pineda, Seattle’s pitching staff is 8-2 with a 1.50 ERA over the last 10 games. Seattle had a stretch of nine straight games with its starters going at least seven innings and giving up two earned runs or less snapped earlier this week.

No one stands out quite like Pineda, whose smile and willingness are among his most recognizable traits. But it’s impossible to ignore his size, a burly 6-7 and 260 pounds. Seattle bullpen coach Jaime Navarro likes to joke that Pineda “got offended” when Seattle’s first spring training roster back in February listed Pineda at only 6-5.

Navarro can joke because he knows Pineda better than anyone in the Mariners’ organization. Four years ago, Navarro was the pitching coach at Single-A Wisconsin and pleaded with his bosses coming out of minor league spring training to let him bring along an 18-year-old Pineda to learn the game with the help of another Latin ballplayer who pitched 12 seasons in the majors.

Navarro’s persuasion paid off. Pineda was the Mariners’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2008 after posting a 1.95 ERA and striking out 128 in 138 1/3 innings.

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