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Mariners await stardom from young pitcher

by: NORM HALL Michael Pineda delivers a pitch during spring training for the Seattle Mariners.

SEATTLE - The Seattle Mariners boast a couple of drawing cards to their games at Safeco Field. No. 1 is Ichiro Suzuki, bound for baseball's Hall of Fame. No. 1A is Felix Hernandez, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.

There will be a third Mariner for fans to watch this season - pitcher Michael Pineda.

Some day soon, Mariner supporters on a first-name basis with Ichiro and Felix could welcome Michael to the select club.

Everyone in and around the organization expects the 22-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic to blossom into stardom - sooner rather than later.

'We have Felix as our No. 1 (pitcher),' says Jack Zduriencik, Seattle's second-year general manager. 'Eventually, we think Michael could move in right behind him. That will be nice for our fans to watch in the years to come.'

'Michael has the ability to be a top-of-the-rotation starter,' says Carl Willis, the Mariners' pitching coach. 'We have a pretty good No. 1 right now, but he has that ability and potential. And on a championship club, he'd be a No. 2 capable of giving you a quality start in a playoff series.'

The Mariners are far from a championship club, but if they can develop more players such as Pineda, they may one day get there.

At 6-7 and 260, he reminds first-year Seattle manager Eric Wedge of a pitcher he had in Cleveland - C.C. Sabathia.

'C.C. was very athletic for his size,' Wedge says. 'Same with Michael. That's what I keep coming back to with him.

'That can be a separator for a pitcher. You're going to have a better feel to make adjustments when you need to, and usually, you can do it quicker. There's a lot to be said for that.'

Pineda was impressive in his major-league debut Tuesday at Texas in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers. Pineda allowed five hits and three earned runs, with one walk and four strikeouts, in the six innings he worked.

'I was amazed by him,' says Seattle catcher Miguel Olivo, also a native of the Dominican Republic. 'He made maybe two bad pitches all night.'

Bill Krueger, the Mariners' TV analyst, says the numbers don't tell the whole story.

'You have to be nervous - your first big-league start, throwing against the hottest team in baseball, in the worst park in the world to pitch in,' says Krueger, whose major-league pitching career spanned 13 seasons. 'He went out there and stood the Rangers on their ears for five innings. He was overwhelming. Those guys had a tough time just making contact with him.'

Pineda has a fastball that tops out at 98 mph, an improving slider and changeup and control. He had 154 strikeouts with only 34 walks in 139 innings at the Double-A and Triple-A level last season while being honored as the Seattle organization's pitcher of the year.

'He has the things you look for - tremendous size and a great arm,' Krueger says. 'And the thing that's really exciting about him is he has always thrown strikes. He has shown the ability to throw both the slider and changeup for strikes, too.'

'There's a lot to like about him - his size, his physical ability, the power fastball,' Willis says. 'And for a young kid, he seems to be a quick learner. He has made immense improvement with his slider, and he has a very good changeup.

'He realizes he has a gifted arm, and because of that, he has a lot of confidence. For most pitchers just arriving on the scene in the big leagues, that takes time to acquire.'

About the only thing limited in Pineda right now is his command of the English language. Even that is improving. He conducts an interview in English, with help from an interpreter. He is willing and engaging and smiles a lot.

'I felt pretty good about my first game,' Pineda says. 'I kept the ball down. My slider was pretty good, and my changeup.

'Now I'm looking to throw with more consistency. I want to do the same - or better.'

Pineda, the oldest of four children, says baseball has been his only sport.

'My family didn't allow me to play basketball,' he says.

Why?

'Because in the Dominican, it is no good for basketball players,' he says.

The country is fertile ground for budding major-leaguers, however. Growing up, Pineda's role model was Pedro Martinez, another Dominican product.

'When I was a little guy, I'd watch Pedro,' Pineda says. 'Back home, everybody wants to be like him. Pedro was a great pitcher.'

Pineda laughs when asked if he is an intimidating figure to a hitter.

'I don't know what the hitters are thinking when they see me on the mound,' he says. 'When I throw, I don't think about that. I'm throwing to throw strikes, no?'

Signed by the Mariners at age 16 in December 2005, Pineda is already in his sixth season of pro ball. He admits he is still struggling with the transition.

'It's difficult for a Dominican guy, no?' he says. 'I'm working on my English. But it's different language, new country, different weather ... sometimes it's cold, sometimes it's hot. But I am more comfortable now.'

Pineda has leaned on Hernandez - a Venezuelan native - to serve as a mentor.

'He's a Latin guy who speaks the (Spanish) language, so that has helped,' Pineda says. 'I've learned a lot from him. He is a great teacher. He talks to me all the time. He says, 'Take it easy, work on the mound, work in the bullpen, keep the ball down, make the right pitch.' '

'When you have someone of Felix's caliber, I've encouraged Michael to talk to him as much as possible - to learn the game, to learn his thought process and how he goes about his work,' Willis says. 'At the same time, it's important for Michael to be himself, to do what he does and not try to imitate Felix. There are not many pitchers who can do things like Felix Hernandez.'

Hernandez, himself only 25, shrugs off the impact he has had with his younger teammate.

'Just trying to help him out,' Hernandez says. 'I've been through everything he's going through. But I don't have to say a lot. He has the stuff to get everything done on his own. He has all the pitches. He's going to be real good.'

The Mariners have Pineda slotted as their No. 5 starter for now. He'll get his second start against Toronto Tuesday night. It's a good spot for him, because he'll have the opportunity to grow as a pitcher without the pressures of being at the top of a rotation.

'My goal is to have a great season, you know?' he says.

Rookie of the Year aspirations?

'Yeah, but I'm not thinking too much about that,' he says. 'I'm working every day on the mound, that's it.'

People in the know are expecting some showy results, at least down the road.

'The ceiling is pretty high for Michael,' Krueger says. 'He's just scratching the surface. There are more things for him to learn, but I love his composure on the mound, and I love his stuff.

'He has an awful long runway in this game. I think it's going to lead him a long ways.'